Amid the frenzy of decorating, planning and shopping for the holidays, health may take a backseat. However, the stress brought on by these activities plus cold temperatures could lead to heart attacks or heart-related complications if left unchecked.
While winter weather is driven by Mother Nature, the major contributor of stress is something everyone can and should control, says Dr. Nasser Lakkis, chief, Cardiology, Harris Health System's Ben Taub Hospital.
"Stress and its many forms — be it emotional, financial or physical — can put undue pressure on your heart during a time that should be happy and joyous," says Lakkis, also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "People don't always understand that stress can be in anything you do. It's all in how you deal with things. If you know that a family gathering is going to be stressful, just say no to the conflict. Holidays should be fun and enjoyable. Family disputes or disagreements should be put off for later when the time is right."
Stress, a common occurrence in everyday life, elevates adrenaline levels and can lead to increases in heart rate and blood pressure. The high levels of adrenaline also cause spasms in arteries that supply blood to and from the heart muscle. If left unchecked, these symptoms can cause a heart attack.
Common heart attack symptoms include:
• Chest discomfort or pain
• Upper body pain
• Shortness of breath
• Nausea and vomiting
• Back or jaw pain (mainly women)
"While most heart attacks begin with subtle symptoms, they should not be ignored," Lakkis says. "Don't dismiss them or brush them off as other ailments like indigestion or anxiety. Heart attack symptoms vary widely from person to person. One person may have only chest discomfort while someone else may experience excruciating pain."
To complicate matters more, holidays are a time when people become complacent about their health. Many stop following healthy habits like taking prescription medicines, exercising regularly or eating well. They also tend to put off tale-tell signs of medical problems because of the holiday rush.
"Don't," Lakkis warns. "The greatest gift you could give your family and yourself is a healthy you, but it involves being responsible for yourself."
Lakkis' recommendations to ease stress:
• Enjoy family gatherings and take them in stride.
• If alone, reach out to friends or do volunteer work.
• If concerned about finances, set and stick to a realistic budget
• Stop or minimize the amount of alcohol you drink or tobacco you use.
• Plan out activities and don't dwell on the mishaps.
• Say no. Don't feel obligated to do things when you can't.
• Be realistic about holiday expectations to avoid disappointment.
While men and women are equally susceptible to heart attacks, Lakkis says more heart attacks tend to occur in the morning when it seems adrenaline is naturally high. The risk for a heart attack could increase with the addition of holiday stress if not careful.
"Wake up happy and see it as the great start to a beautiful day," he says. "It's all in how you look at things."