Heart Disease and Stress

man with his hands on his face - showing stress

Stress triggers the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body to deal with a threat by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. While this response is beneficial in the short term, chronic stress can lead to long-term health issues, including heart disease.

Your body’s response to stress is supposed to protect you. But, if it's constant, it can harm you. Studies suggest long-term stress can increase your blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease.

Stress can also cause changes that promote plaque (atherosclerosis) buildup in the arteries. Even minor stress can trigger heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle. This is a condition in which the heart does not get enough blood or oxygen. Long-term stress can also affect how blood clots. This makes the blood stickier and increases the risk of stroke.

RWJBarnabas Health offers wellness events designed to keep you healthy throughout the year, including stress management events such as yoga and mindfulness classes. To learn more about stress-related programs offered at RWJBarnabas Health, visit our Events Calendar.

If you are concerned about stress and your heart health, talk to your doctor.

Request an Appointment with a Cardiologist

Causes of Stress

Stress can be caused by a physical or emotional change or a change in your environment that requires you to adjust or respond. Things that make you feel stressed are called "stressors." Stressors can be minor hassles, significant lifestyle changes, or a combination. Below are some everyday stressors that can affect people at all stages of life:

  • Illness, either personal or of a family member or friend
  • Death of a friend or loved one
  • Problems in a personal relationship
  • Work overload
  • Starting a new job
  • Unemployment
  • Retirement
  • Crowds
  • Relocation
  • Legal problems
  • Financial concerns
  • Perfectionism

Kinds of Stress

The heart and blood vessels comprise the cardiovascular system's two elements, which provide nourishment and oxygen to the body's organs. The activity of these two elements is also coordinated in the body's response to stress, which can be categorized as acute or chronic.

Acute stress is momentary or lasting for a short time. Some examples include meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic, or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident. All of these cause an increase in heart rate and more substantial heart muscle contractions. In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response. The body returns to normal once the acute stress episode has passed.

Chronic stress is constant stress experienced over a prolonged period. This can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate and the elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure can take a toll on the body.

Chronic stress can lead to several conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, including:

  • High blood pressure. Chronic stress can contribute to hypertension, a significant risk factor for heart disease.
  • High cholesterol. Stress can negatively affect cholesterol levels, leading to an increase in “bad” LDL cholesterol.
  • Obesity. Stress can lead to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain, increasing the risk of heart disease.
  • Diabetes. Stress can affect blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease.

Can Stress Cause Heart Disease?

Stress doesn't directly cause heart disease, but its effects on our bodies and behaviors can elevate our risk. When stressed, we may adopt unhealthy habits — like smoking or eating poorly — that are known risk factors for heart disease. Stress also triggers a physiological response, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, which can strain our cardiovascular system over time.

While stress is not a direct cause of heart disease, understanding and managing it can significantly reduce your risk. Embrace other healthy lifestyle choices like lowering cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, managing weight, getting enough physical activity, staying away from tobacco, and following a healthy diet and stress reduction techniques to protect your heart health. Consider participating in RWJBarnabas Wellness events designed to keep you healthy.

Coping With Stress

group of people doing yoga

Addressing stress is a critical component of heart health. Here are some strategies to manage stress effectively:

  • Regular physical activity. Exercise is a powerful stress reducer and heart health booster.
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help calm the mind and reduce stress.
  • Adequate sleep. Getting enough sleep is essential for managing stress and maintaining heart health.
  • Healthy eating. A heart-healthy diet can help reduce stress levels and improve overall health.
  • Make healthy choices. Be careful with your alcohol consumption, and stop smoking.
  • Social support. Connecting with friends, family, and support groups can provide emotional support and reduce stress.
  • Take responsibility. Control what you can and leave behind what you cannot control.
  • Reduce causes of stress. Many people find life is filled with too many demands and too little time.
  • Time management. Prioritizing tasks and setting realistic goals can help manage work-life balance and reduce stress.
  • Assert yourself. You do not have to meet others' expectations or demands.
  • Seek professional help. If stress becomes overwhelming, seeking the advice of a mental health professional can be beneficial.

RWJBarnabas Health offers wellness events designed to keep you healthy throughout the year, including stress management events such as yoga and mindfulness classes. To learn more about stress-related programs offered at RWJBarnabas Health, visit our Events Calendar or talk to your doctor.

How Stress Affects Women's Heart Health

Stress is a universal experience, but its impact on heart health can be particularly significant for women. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of heart-related problems, underscoring the importance of managing stress for overall heart health. Research suggests that women may experience and react to stress differently than men, potentially increasing their risk of heart disease. For example, stress can lead to increased inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease. Women often juggle multiple roles, which can contribute to stress levels, further impacting heart health.

Stress is inevitable, but its impact on women's heart health makes it essential to manage. By adopting a holistic approach that includes lifestyle changes, stress-reduction techniques, and professional support when necessary, women can significantly mitigate the effects of stress. Remember, taking care of your heart is about physical health and emotional and mental well-being.

Benefits of Reducing Stress

Managing and reducing stress is not just about improving your mood or avoiding a bad day but also safeguarding your long-term health and well-being.

Incorporating stress reduction strategies into your lifestyle is a powerful way to protect your heart. Regular physical activity, balanced nutrition, and adequate sleep are foundational elements. Together with mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga, they form a robust defense against the detrimental effects of stress on your heart. Your heart is at the core of your health, and by taking steps to reduce stress, you're not just improving your quality of life — you are potentially extending it.

Managing stress is a critical but achievable part of maintaining heart health. Adopting stress reduction techniques and making proactive lifestyle changes can significantly lower one's risk of heart disease and enhance one's overall well-being.

Talk to an Expert About Stress and Your Heart Health

Concerned about how stress might be affecting your heart? Talk to an RWJBarnabas Health cardiologist today.

Request an Appointment

Patient Stories

  • “I have significantly reduced my stress,” Hart said. “When you go through something like this, it changes how you see the world. I purposefully don’t get stressed about the things that I used to.”

    Jim
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  • “The Impella 5.5 was a life-saving device for me,” Keith added. “When I went into the hospital I did not know if or how I was going to have the opportunity to receive a heart. The Impella 5.5 made that possible for me.”

    Keith
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  • “I could not believe it when I received the call on a Sunday afternoon,” said Ian. “The nurses and doctors that took care of me before, during and post-surgery are unbelievable."

    Ian
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