Discover How Stress Affects the Heart

Although experts have yet to understand the exact mechanisms of mind-body interaction, evidence shows that emotional stress influences a wide variety of diseases. So, with that in mind, we'll talk about how stress affects the heart.
Discover How Stress Affects the Heart
Karina Valeria Atchian

Written and verified by the doctor Karina Valeria Atchian.

Last update: 25 August, 2022

Psychological factors can negatively affect multiple organs of the human body. Today, we’ll talk about how stress affects the heart and the entire cardiovascular system. In practice, mental health affects almost all medical illnesses.

Mind and body are in an intimate relationship and constant interaction. Any imbalance increases risk factors for mortality.

What is stress?

Stress is the way the body reacts to situations that endanger the person or are challenging. This type of reaction intends to protect against threatening problems.

In small amounts, stressful situations should not be harmful to your health. However, if they become permanent or are too intense, they could be harmful.

Stress can affect almost all general diseases, as we stated above, including those whose mechanism of production is well known. Coronary heart disease, for example, or diabetes, as well as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.

A man having a nervous breakdown at work, throwing papers in the air.
Workplace stress is one of the forms of this disorder that increases cardiovascular risk.

How stress affects the heart and cardiovascular system

Almost 20 years ago, studying patients with coronary disease demonstrated the negative relationship between stress and ischemic heart disease. Later, many other investigations confirmed the same thing. However, the exact mechanisms by which the association occurs remain uncertain.

Several hypotheses exist regarding how emotional stress could trigger an acute myocardial infarction, such as an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, vascular tone, and even the capacity for platelet aggregation. All of these are closely related to the release of neurotransmitters.

Significant increases in heart rate and blood pressure may lead to increased oxygen demand from the myocardium. In certain patient conditions, that is, in those who present a greater previous risk, it may lead to an acute heart attack.

All these factors also refer to certain anomalies in the autonomic nervous system. This is the neuronal part that’s responsible for involuntary actions, such as breathing or heartbeat.

If the person has established risk factors, such as the presence of atherosclerotic plaques in the small arteries, then the discharge from the nervous system could lead to a plaque accident. This is the situation in which atheromas break down and obstruct circulation, interrupting the flow of oxygen to the tissues.

Also, it’s important to clarify that the stressful situations of daily life can cause an increase in the number of cigarettes smokers consume. In the same way, in some people, stress causes a deterioration in their diet, which in turn leads to an increase in the cholesterol in their blood.

You may be interested in: What is a Myocardial Infarction?

Symptoms of the stress that affects the heart

Some people are more prone to signs of stress than others, either because of their personality or because of their experienced situations. For them, it’ll be very important to develop mechanisms that allow them to face those triggers that healthily destabilize them.

One of the classic symptoms of stress affecting the heart is palpitations. These are accelerations of the heartbeat, with tachycardia, which feels like a pounding in the chest.

Chest pain can also be a manifestation of the problem. Not always with a heart attack, but rather dull and insidious pain, like constant oppression that oscillates between acute and calm periods.

Tips for Fighting Stress on the Heart

Recognition of the interaction of stressors and various heart diseases should encourage the development of prevention strategies. Some people are at increased risk for conditions that would lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Prevention of cardiovascular events may be possible if, along with diet and exercise, individuals also practice effective stress reduction techniques. At the time of severe emotional problems, people can use relaxation strategies, for example. At the same time, it’s important to avoid stress-triggering factors as much as possible.

In general, the objective of a stress management program will be to reduce the impact on the patient. It’s impossible to completely eliminate stressors, but it is possible to limit them, just as it’s possible to contain them and turn them into stimuli for individual improvement.

A woman experiencing stress while working on her laptop on the couch.
It’s important to manage stress to minimize cardiovascular risks.

When should you consult a doctor?

It’s impossible to predict how much stress affects the heart in each person. Despite this, the identification of problematic situations, such as grief, for example, should alert us of the need to seek professional help to avoid negative consequences.

Additionally, it’s important to adopt healthy habits. Among them, to have a healthy and balanced diet, and to avoid smoking and excessive alcohol. At the same time, you should practice regular physical activity, preferably aerobic. A healthy sleep routine is another tool that reduces anxiety.

Also, and as much as possible, you should avoid or reduce situations that cause you stress. All this will not only have a positive impact on your heart health, but also on your overall wellbeing.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.