How Does Stress Affect the Heart?
Stress causes the body to release cortisol, causing an increase in blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol. While stress is a natural and sometimes beneficial emotion, chronic or severe stress can be unhealthy for your mental and physical well-being. Learn more about the types of stress and stress’s affect on the heart and cardiovascular health.
What Are the Types of Stress?
Stress is a part of your body’s natural fight-or-flight response and is designed to protect you from danger. While stress is a normal emotion, chronic or severe stress can negatively impact mental and physical health. The three common types of stress include:
1. Acute Stress
Acute stress is normal and occurs in everyone, as it’s your body’s natural immediate response to potential danger. You may experience acute stress if you get in a minor fender bender or are about to give a big presentation at work. Acute stress may even happen before doing something you enjoy, like biking down a steep trail or other exciting activities.
In most cases, acute stress doesn’t cause the body harm or long-term complications. Once the perceived danger passes, acute stress quickly and naturally dissipates. While acute stress is expected, severe acute stress can negatively impact health. For example, severe acute stress may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions.
2. Episodic Acute Stress
Similar to acute stress, episodic acute stress occurs when you experience frequent episodes of acute stress. Episodic acute stress commonly affects those who have anxiety or frequently worry about future events. Approximately 31.1% of American adults experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
While an anxiety disorder may cause episodic acute stress, certain professions may lead to frequent stress, including surgeons, firefighters or law enforcement. Severe episodic acute stress can negatively impact your mental and physical health.
3. Chronic Stress
Chronic stress is a constant or prolonged feeling of stress that can negatively impact your overall health, especially if not treated. Traumatic situations and daily pressures often cause chronic stress. Research estimates that 8.3 million American adults experience serious psychological distress.
Chronic stress occurs when you experience frequent or intense stressors where the autonomic nervous system doesn’t have time to initiate the body’s relaxation response. High stress levels can contribute to cardiovascular disease, anxiety, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.
How Stress Affects the Heart and Blood Vessels
While stress is a normal aspect of life, severe or chronic stress can increase a person’s risk of developing an illness. Many people experience stress from traumatic events, work, money and other life stressors. Your body’s natural response to stress is designed to protect you, but if stress is severe or constant, your body’s reaction may lead to poor health.
People with chronic stress may experience pain, aches, anxiety, depression, anger, impatience, forgetfulness, low energy and poor sleep. While stress can negatively affect heart health directly, there are also indirect complications of stress. For example, stress may cause you to make unhealthy life choices, affecting heart health.
Stress may increase the risk of or worsen:
- Heart disease: When you feel stressed, your body releases a hormone known as cortisol. High cortisol levels may increase blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol. These aspects are potential risk factors for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for women and men.
- Increased blood pressure: When you’re stressed, your body releases various hormones, increasing your blood pressure and causing the blood vessels to narrow and the heart to beat faster. Research estimates approximately 47% of American adults have hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure.
- Poor circulation: Increased blood pressure places a greater strain on the veins’ walls. Prolonged or chronic stress compounds these issues. Research indicates that people 40 or older who don’t get much exercise, are overweight or have diabetes are more likely to experience poor blood flow.
- Irregular heartbeat: Stress may lead to arrhythmias, which are heart rhythm disorders that cause the heart to beat too quickly, slowly or irregularly. Stress and other mental health issues may worsen these symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that atrial fibrillation is one of the most commonly treated heart arrhythmias.
- Heart attacks: Medical research states stress can lead to elevated blood pressure levels, which can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. Stress may also increase a person’s likelihood to partake in poor health habits that may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including lack of physical activity, overeating and smoking. Annually, approximately 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack. 200,000 of these cases are those suffering a second or repeat heart attack.
- Stroke: Stress may cause various heart complications, like poor circulation to the heart itself, causing the heart to not receive enough oxygen or blood. Long-term stress can also influence the body’s blood clotting process, making the blood stickier, increasing the risk of stroke. Research estimates more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke annually.
Stress-Reducing Activities to Help Your Heart
There are numerous lifestyle changes you can make to help your heart. Some of the most effective ways to reduce stress include:
- Exercise regularly: Exercise can minimize stressful feelings and anxiety. Exercise helps reduce stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Physical activity also stimulates the body’s creation of endorphins, which are chemicals that act as mood elevators and natural painkillers.
- Eat well: A proper diet also affects your physical and mental health. A balanced diet helps the body repair damaged cells and supports a healthy immune system, providing the energy needed to deal with stressors. Research shows certain foods, including vegetables and omega-3 fats, may manage cortisol levels.
- Prioritize self-care: Another way to manage stress and improve overall health is to prioritize self-care. You can set time aside each day to enjoy an activity and unwind. Self-care looks different for each person but may include doing yoga, reading, taking a bath, walking outside or lighting a candle.
- Minimize caffeine intake: Minimizing caffeine intake may help minimize anxiety and stress. Consuming high levels of caffeine may worsen stress and disrupt your sleep pattern, potentially causing further complications with stress.
- Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness helps anchor you to the present and curb stress or anxious thoughts. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is an effective way to center yourself in the present moment. Mindfulness can minimize stress responses and may lower blood pressure.
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At the Modern Heart and Vascular Institute, we offer state-of-the-art cardiovascular care with innovative diagnostic tools and compassionate patient care. Our priority at Modern Heart and Vascular Institute is prevention. We help patients lead healthier lives by avoiding unnecessary procedures and surgeries.
This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930.