February 5, 2020

Stress and the Heart: How Are They Connected?

There is a definite connection between stress and the heart. We all need some stress in our lives in order to function. For example, fear and stress help us react when we’re in dangerous situations, and stress due to upcoming deadlines helps some people perform better. But when stress is elevated to the level that it affects us physically or mentally, it’s no longer healthy, especially for the heart. When this happens, we need to reduce our stress levels before they cause damage.

What Stress Does

Stress produces an anxious response in the body. It kicks off the fight-or-flight (or freeze) response. When you’re anxious, your body is flooded with a burst of chemicals that propel you to react. These chemicals, cortisol and adrenaline, give you the strength to move. Once you have reacted, the chemical levels drop back to normal. However, if you’re under constant or chronic stress, these chemicals stay active and present in high levels. This keeps you from relaxing and puts a strain on your body, especially your heart.

Stress and Heart Disease

Stress is not considered a direct factor for heart disease, but it can lead to body changes that affect your heart, leading to heart disease. Stress can cause your blood pressure to rise and make your heart beat faster than it should, putting strain on the heart muscles as they work harder to push blood through your arteries. Constantly high levels of stress hormones can cause the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels, making it harder for blood to flow to your heart and causing heart tissue to die. This can lead to a heart attack.

Stress can also trigger behaviors that increase your risk of heart disease. It may cause you to eat too much or not enough, consume unhealthy foods, smoke, drink alcohol, or participate in other risky behaviors.

When Is Stress Too Much?

So, how can you tell if you’re under too much stress? Your body has ways of telling you. You may experience some of these signs and symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Tense or painful muscles
  • Fatigue or sleepiness
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability or anger
  • Depression
  • Loss of desire to socialize
  • Loss of pleasure from hobbies

Relieving Stress

There are some steps you can take to reduce stress if it’s affecting your health. These include taking time for yourself to relax, play, exercise, participate in a hobby, or even go away for a few days. Self-care like massage, practicing meditation and mindfulness, seeing a counselor or therapist, and eating a healthy diet are also helpful.

If you are experiencing signs of stress and you can’t seem to get it under control on your own, it’s time to speak to a healthcare professional. A doctor, nurse practitioner, or counselor can help you with tools that work on stress. For some people, it may be more direct self-care, and for others it may mean taking medications.

There is a strong connection between stress and the heart. Learning how to manage your stress levels can help reduce your risk of developing heart disease.