How much does stress affect the heart? It is understood that stress can contribute to high blood pressure, which itself is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. And stress could also be a factor in cardiovascular disease risks like eating too much, smoking, and not getting enough exercise. This makes it essential that you manage your stress and arrange a heart check-up when necessary.
In this article, we are going to examine the effects of stress on the heart, covering the different types and causes of stress, the way it affects the heart, symptoms to look out for, and the link between stress and various heart conditions.
Types of stress
What are the different types of stress that we can experience, and how are they classified?
Acute stress is the body’s reaction to challenging or uncomfortable circumstances. We all get it from time to time – from narrowly avoiding a collision when driving, to a ‘white knuckle’ ride at a theme park; acute stress is often unavoidable, and is not typically harmful.
Once a dangerous situation has passed, your body will return to normal. However, in cases of severe acute stress after a life-threatening situation, for instance, mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can develop.
Episodic acute stress is characterised by regular episodes of acute stress, and can negatively impact mental and physical wellbeing. You can get this condition if you are constantly anxious about stressful events that could happen or you continuously suffer from ‘work-related stress’. It is seen to be more prevalent in people with ‘high-stress jobs’ such as police officers or soldiers. For more information about the link between stress and intense job roles, read our article on CEOs And Stress Related Heart Disease.
Chronic stress refers to high stress levels over the long term. If you are experiencing stress regularly over an extended period, it can lead to problems such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- A weak immune system
- High blood pressure
You may also experience more complaints such as headache, stomach ache and difficulty sleeping.
Causes of stress
Several concerns commonly occur as causes of stress, such as:
- Going through significant changes in your life
- Feeling under pressure
- Not having control over a certain situation
- Constantly worrying about something
- Not keeping occupied enough with work or other activities
- Being overwhelmed by responsibilities
Whether it’s money worries, relationship problems or employment concerns – stress might stem from one issue, or it could be caused by a build-up of several smaller concerns. When you aren’t sure of the exact cause, it can be hard to talk about it with others. And we shouldn’t forget about other factors that can influence how much we feel stress, including:
- Whether you interpret matters positively or negatively
- How much experience you have in dealing with a certain kind of pressure
- Other pressures that you are dealing with at a time
- How much support you have from others
- How emotionally resilient you are
How does stress affect the heart?
If you are frequently feeling stressed and are lacking effective ways of managing this stress, you may be at more risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia)
- Chest pain
Stress can change the way that blood clots, which can put you at a higher risk of a heart attack. The way you react to stress is significant. Some people respond to stress by engaging in unhealthy habits such as not exercising enough, smoking, or eating too much. If you can find healthy ways to manage or relieve stress, that’s more beneficial for your body and mind.
Heart stress symptoms
When you encounter acute stress, you can experience stress cardiomyopathy, which is also known as broken heart syndrome. Sudden stress can be caused by emotional stressors like fear, grief, shock or anger. Physical stressors – such as seizure, stroke, fever, low blood sugar and breathing difficulty – can also play their part.
When a stressful event occurs, the body produces hormones such as adrenaline that can help you to handle the stress. When the heart is overwhelmed by this large amount of adrenaline, broken heart syndrome can occur, as the heart muscle weakens, small arteries narrow and blood flow is decreased. If adrenaline binds to the heart cells, calcium can enter the cells and prevent them from performing their task.
This condition can result in symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Symptoms typically last for minutes, but in some cases, can last for a few hours.
Stress and heart attacks
Research has shown that feeling stressed frequently could raise your risk of having a heart attack. A study found that when people are stressed, their amygdala (a part of the brain that handles stress) sends a signal to the bone marrow to make more white blood cells. This can lead to inflammation of the arteries, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
Stress and heart disease
As we touched upon in the previous section, stress is linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Although stress may not be a direct risk factor, frequently feeling stressed is linked to other factors that increase heart disease risk, such as high blood pressure, bad eating, lack of exercise, and smoking.
Stress and heart palpitations
Heart palpitations, or heart arrhythmia, are when the heart starts to feel like it is pounding, beating irregularly or fluttering for a short period. In the majority of cases, they are not a serious problem.
There are a range of potential emotional and psychological triggers that can cause heart palpitations, and these include stress, as well as anxiety, nervousness, excitement and panic attacks.
Stress and high blood pressure
Because the body produces a rush of hormones when you encounter stress, these hormones can increase blood pressure temporarily by making the arteries narrow and the heart beat faster. Frequently being stressed can increase high blood pressure, but there is no evidence that long term high blood pressure is increased directly by stress. However, behavioural reactions to stress – such as smoking, drinking more alcohol and eating junk foods – are linked to high blood pressure, as are conditions linked to a higher risk of heart disease, such as anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, there are a variety of activities that you can do to reduce stress, and in turn, lower your blood pressure.
How to reduce stress
Let’s conclude the article with some tips on how to reduce stress:
- Stay active – each time we exercise the body releases endorphins which boost our mood. Not only does exercising regularly combat stress, but it can also lower your blood pressure and strengthen your heart. It doesn’t have to be an intense gym workout – just taking a walk, playing a sport or going for a swim is a great stress reliever
- Learn to switch off – if you have a stressful life, it might be time to shut down for a little while. That means taking yourself away from the social media feeds, TV programmes and emails that can threaten to take over our day
- Laugh – don’t underestimate just how much having a laugh can be beneficial for the heart. Research has proven that laughing lowers stress hormone levels and reduces inflammation of the arteries
- Get enough sleep – getting a restful night’s sleep of seven to nine hours can give you a stronger mindset to deal with stress when it presents itself. Research suggests it’s a ‘catch 22’ situation – high stress levels can lead to sleeping problems, while not getting enough sleep can also increase stress
- Speak to a professional – It can help to talk things through, especially with professional guidance from qualified practitioners. And whilst talking to a counsellor or therapist may not completely eradicate the problem, it’s been proven to dramatically reduce levels of stress.
Healthy heart check-up
It is important to go for a heart check-up every so often, to ensure your heart is working as it should, and to diagnose any underlying medical conditions as soon as possible. At Echelon Health, we recommend our healthy heart package, which includes tests and screenings to monitor your heart. This includes:
Book a health check-up at Echelon Health today, and benefit from world class doctors and advanced medical imaging technology. Call us on +44 (0)20 7580 7688 or email