People have long suspected that stress and anxiety can cause health problems in the long term, particularly heart problems. Now, new research suggests that this is more than just a suspicion.
Now, a recent Swedish research program has developed data which indicate overwhelmingly that persons with high-stress jobs are at significantly greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a common heartbeat irregularity which can cause stroke.
Eleanor I. Fransson, an associate professor at Jönköping University, said, “Atrial fibrillation is a common condition with serious consequences and therefore it is of major public health importance to find ways of preventing it.”
The researchers defined a “high-stress job” as one that gives the job holder little control over work situations and is psychologically demanding. For workers in high stress jobs, the combination of a high level of effort with low predictability of outcomes generates what psychologists call toxic stress.
Toxic stress is chronic anxiety caused by conditions that are long-lasting. The result is that those suffering from it remain in a low level fight or flight mode over extremely prolonged periods of time. Our sympathetic nervous system is optimized, in part, to prepare us to respond to danger, to escape the danger- and then to return to normal. You might think of chronic stress as similar to revving the engine of a car far too long and far too often. This hyper-readiness is extremely taxing on the entire body- particularly the heart. Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common consequences of chronic, or toxic stress.
The consequences of atrial fibrillation vary greatly from person to person. The condition can go unnoticed for years, appearing only after a serious medical episode. It can be temporary for some people, and permanent for others depending on a number of genetic and environmental reasons. Those who have it are five times more likely to experience a stroke compared to someone who does not have it.
More than 750,000 people are admitted to hospitals each year for reasons associated to A-Fib, and an estimated 130,000 deaths result from these cases.
According to the research, toxic stress at work is the leading cause of this condition. Prof. Fransson and her team are now looking into ways to accurately model stressful workplaces in order to better measure chronic stress across various study groups.