Stress and Heart Health

Busy working Mom on cell phone and laptop holding baby

What’s stressful for one person may not be for another. Happy events (new marriage, job promotion, new home) and unhappy events (illness, being overworked, family problems) can cause stress.

Everyone feels and reacts to stress in different ways. How much stress you experience and how you react to it can lead to a wide variety of health problems. That’s why it’s critical to know what you can do to manage your stress. Adopting serenity in the face of life’s challenges may help improve how you view stress and result in better quality of life and heart health.

Stress, mental health and your heart

Mental health can positively or negatively impact your physical health and risk factors for heart disease and stroke. 

Stress may contribute to poor health behaviors linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Overeating
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Being overweight
  • Not taking medications as prescribed

Your body’s response to stress can include things such as:

  • A headache
  • Body pains
  • Stomach pains
  • Rashes

Stress can also:

  • Reduce your energy 
  • Wreak havoc on your sleep
  • Make you feel cranky, forgetful or out of control

A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that briefly causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. These reactions prepare you to deal with the situation, giving you what is known as “fight or flight” response.

What is chronic stress?

Chronic stress is when you experience stress for a long period of time and your body is in high gear off and on for days or weeks at a time. Chronic stress may lead to high blood pressure, which can increase risk for heart attack and stroke.

Can managing stress reduce or prevent heart disease?

Managing stress is good for your health and well-being. Further research is needed to determine more about how stress contributes to heart disease and stroke. Negative psychological and mental health is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Meanwhile, positive psychological health is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and death.  

Negative mental health conditions include:

  • Burnout
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Pessimism
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These conditions are associated with potentially harmful bodily responses, such as:

  • Irregular heart rate and rhythm
  • Increased digestive problems
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Inflammation
  • Reduced blood flow to the heart

Positive mental health characteristics include:

  • Happiness
  • Optimism
  • Gratitude
  • Sense of purpose and life satisfaction
  • Mindfulness

People with positive mental health are also more likely to have health factors linked to a lower risk of developing heart disease, such as:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better glucose control
  • Less inflammation
  • Lower cholesterol

What can I do about stress?

Fortunately, you can manage stress by:

  • Exercising regularly. It can relieve stress, tension, anxiety and depression. Consider a nature walk, meditation or yoga.
  • Making time for friends and family. It’s important to maintain social connections and talk with people you trust.
  • Getting enough sleep. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours a night.
  • Maintaining a positive attitude. Keep a gratitude journal and write weekly entries. 
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditating or listening to music.
  • Finding a stimulating hobby.  A hobby you enjoy can keep you engaged so you don’t dwell on negative thoughts or worries. You might want to try cooking or knitting. 

Figuring out how stress affects your body is an important step in dealing with it. Identify sources of stress in your life and look for ways to reduce and manage them. A health care professional can help you find ways to manage your stress.

Stress management or relaxation classes can also help. Look for them at community colleges, rehab programs, hospitals or by calling a therapist in your community.