Stress and Heart Health: 5 Tips for Understanding the Connection

By Richard Keating, MD FACC | Cardiology 

It’s safe to say nobody likes feeling stressed. Not only does chronic stress – which can stem from many personal and professional situations – make us feel lousy, it can set off a chain of damaging physical and emotional effects. These include moodiness, poor sleep, and high or low appetite.

But another pressing concern is whether stress is potentially dangerous to the heart. The top killer of both men and women – claiming more than 600,00 lives in the United States each year – heart problems have long been linked to state of mind. In fact, physician William Harvey, who in the 17th century discovered the heart’s circulation of blood around the body, famously wrote how “every affection of the mind that is attended either with pain or pleasure, hope or fear, is the cause of an agitation whose influence extends to the heart.”

Scientists are still uncovering all the ways that stress contributes to heart disease. But it’s already clear that stress contributes to behaviors and other factors that raise heart disease risk.

5 Ways Stress Affects the Heart

Stress comes in 2 main forms: acute and chronic. Acutely stressful situations – such as hearing terrible news – can trigger a “fight or flight” response that may lead to a heart attack. During sudden stress, the body produces a surge of adrenaline that causes breathing and heart rates to increase. This can be very dangerous for the heart for individuals with other cardiac risk factors.

But even chronic stress can cause unhealthy conditions for the heart. Here are 5 ways:

  • High blood pressure: Lasting stress can cause our bodies to produce too much adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related hormones on a regular basis. These hormones can constrict blood vessels, triggering high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Poor eating habits: Ever want to shovel junk food into your mouth after a bad day? (Perhaps a better question is, who hasn’t?) But making a habit of eating high-fat, processed foods and sweets can lead to obesity and high cholesterol levels, which both strain the heart.
  • Excess alcohol intake: A glass or two of wine is fine once in awhile, but stress is known to provoke people to drink too much (which may make them also eat too much of the wrong foods). Excess alcohol can also raise levels of dangerous fats in the blood known as triglycerides and raise blood pressure.
  • Smoking: The highly addictive drug nicotine found in cigarettes leads many to opt for its relaxing properties to combat stress – even though they know smoking causes heart disease by damaging blood vessels.
  • Lack of exercise: When we’re stressed, often the last thing we want to do is exercise. After all, it seems far more relaxing to sit on the couch than walk a couple of miles or work out at the gym. But damaging effects of inactivity include high blood pressure, obesity and other major cardiac risk factors.

Tips to Help Minimize Stress

Learning to properly manage stress pays off in many important ways – including helping us feel more relaxed and capable of dealing with life. But the role of stress management is also being studied in relation to combating heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, several therapies that incorporate both psychological and social aspects appear to be helpful in preventing a second heart attack.

To minimize heart hazards related to stress, it’s key to tackle the stress itself and any unhealthy habits stemming from it. In addition to eating properly, exercising, and avoiding smoking and excess drinking, stress-busting tactics include meditating and regularly unplugging from digital devices. Stress management classes can also help and are offered at many community colleges or through hospitals.