Stress and the heart: What you need to know

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:  

  • Stress can lead to chronic high blood pressure, one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.

  • Studies indicate that people who show signs of stress on brain scans were more likely to have a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack.

  • Providence provides advice on ways to relieve stress and improve your heart health.

Yes, life seems to be easing back into some normalcy. But it doesn’t feel totally normal, does it?

You may be feeling some uncertainty about back-to-school, masks and summer travel. And then there are questions about your work life — will you be working from home permanently or heading back into the office? Social situations seem like a new adventure, too.

It goes without saying that although this summer may feel better than last year, we’re all still feeling stress and anxiety about life today. But if you feel like the stress is starting to pile on more than usual, it’s time to stop and figure out some ways to relax and recharge.

Long-term stress not only affects your mental health, but it also creates lasting physical effects.

Long-term stress not only affects your mental health, but it also creates lasting physical effects. In particular, your heart can be susceptible to serious damage if you don’t keep your stress in check.

How stress affects your heart

Feeling some stress now and then isn’t likely to affect your heart health. But long-term stress can take a toll.

When you feel stressed, your blood pressure increases — it’s a natural response to a stressful situation. While a short period of high blood pressure is okay, having chronic high blood pressure is one of the main risk factors for heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

High blood pressure can strain and damage arteries, which ultimately affects how blood flows to your heart and brain.

High blood pressure can strain and damage arteries, which ultimately affects how blood flows to your heart and brain. The more you can do to curb your stress, the better off your heart will be.

Mental health, stress and heart health

A 2017 study published in The Lancet said that people who showed signs of stress on brain scans were more likely to have a cardiovascular event like a heart attack. The stress response on the brain scan was also associated with increased inflammation in the arteries, raising the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Stress, anxiety or depression can also lead to unhealthy heart responses like palpitations or inflammation.

Poor mental health — whether it’s stress, anxiety or depression — can also lead to unhealthy heart responses like palpitations or inflammation. Over time, these responses can damage the heart and how it functions.

Stress-induced behaviors

We’ve all been there before: After a stressful day, all you want to do is dive into a piece of cake, a cocktail, or some other type of comfort food. And when you’re stressed, exercise is often the last thing you think you have time for.

Stress, too, can prompt unhealthy behaviors that can increase the risk for heart disease. Some of these behaviors include:

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Overeating or unhealthy diet
  • Smoking
  • Substance use

While the stress itself can create physical problems for the heart, unhealthy stress relief activities can worsen the situation. It’s crucial to find healthy ways to respond and curb your stress.

Signs of stress

Everyone has different responses to stress. You may feel some physical side effects while someone else can have a more mental or emotional reaction. Stress can prompt side effects like back pain, forgetfulness, headaches, stomach pain and poor sleep. If you notice these symptoms more often, it’s time to decompress and find a way to release some of that stress. Your heart will thank you for it.

Ways to reduce stress and help your heart

When you’re stressed, you may feel like you don’t have time to take a break. But taking time to relieve stress doesn’t mean you have to set aside hours of downtime. Start by adding a few minutes for yourself each day until you’ve worked out a stress relief routine.

Here are a few ideas to release that high-pressure stress valve, so you can keep your heart healthy. In addition, be sure to talk to your primary care provider for resources that can help improve your mental health.

Music and meditation

Studies show that music and meditation can lower stress and reduce your cortisol levels, ultimately improving your heart health. Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. It elevates your heart rate and blood pressure as part of your flight-or-fight response.

Daily meditation can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that daily meditation can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Another study presented last year showed that heart attack patients can boost recovery and post-op stress by listening to 30 minutes of music a day.

Exercise

Whether you prefer high-impact workouts or low-key stretching, exercise of any kind can relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Even if you can only fit in 15 minutes a day, adding some exercise to your routine can improve your physical and mental health.

Yoga, which combines meditation, breathing exercises and gentle stretching, has been shown to boost heart health. It improves circulation while reducing cortisol levels, heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation.

Aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping can also reduce cortisol and adrenaline, making you feel more relaxed. And have you ever heard of a “runner’s high”? That positive feeling comes from your body producing endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that help improve your mood.

Before making any modifications to your diet or exercise routine, be sure to consult with your doctor.

Be kind

Several studies have shown that random acts of kindness can lower stress, ease pain, boost energy and reduce risk factors for heart disease. Like exercise, being kind releases hormones and chemicals in your body that lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, boost energy and improve your mood. All these side effects can contribute to a healthier heart.

Random acts of kindness can lower stress, ease pain, boost energy and reduce risk factors for heart disease.

Sleep more

In addition to reducing stress, sleep plays a vital role in your heart health. Studies have shown that people who have trouble sleeping are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

Try following these tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

  • Avoid working or watching TV in your bedroom.
  • Create a serene sleeping space that’s dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Stick to the same sleep schedule every night.
  • Avoid eating or drinking within a couple of hours before bedtime.
  • Keep your cell phone out of the bedroom and avoid screens a few hours before bedtime.

Have a laugh

Laughter is a great way to reduce stress and boost cardiovascular health. Try setting aside time every day to read something funny, play with your kids or engage in a fun activity. More laughter in your life can:

  • Stimulate circulation and help you relax your muscles, which means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood through the body.
  • Release nitric oxide, a chemical compound that can reduce artery inflammation and prevent plaque from forming in your arteries.
  • Boost “good” cholesterol levels (HDL cholesterol), which can push “bad” (LDL) cholesterol out of your arteries and prevent plaque buildup or blockages.
  • Improve blood vessel function by expanding the tissue that forms the inner lining of your blood vessels (endothelium). This helps prevent the hardening of blood vessels and arteries.

Find a new hobby

Engaging in a hobby has been shown to reduce stress levels, which can ultimately help your heart. A 2015 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed that adults who participated in leisure activities were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad while doing those activities. The participants also had lower heart rates and felt calm and happy.

Socialize with friends and family

Although the pandemic may not be over, vaccinations have made it easier to spend time with friends and family. Take advantage of these social opportunities and share stories, memories and laughter. These interactions and relationships can boost your mood, help you decompress and relieve stress.

What’s important is finding a safe way to relieve stress, whether it’s through exercise, meditation or enjoying time with family.

Stress can have huge knock-off effects on your entire body, your heart especially. So, what’s important is finding a safe way to relieve stress, whether it’s through exercise, meditation or enjoying time with family. And if you’re still struggling with stress relief, don’t hesitate to ask someone for help.

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Find a doctor

Keeping your stress in check can have lasting effects on your mental and physical health, so it’s important to talk to a professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed. They will find healthy ways for you to cope with stress and help you keep your heart healthy.

If you need expert cardiovascular care, our team of physicians is ready to help. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory.

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Related resources

Can laughter help you live longer?

Being kind has many health benefits

Anxiety around COVID-19 may be ‘breaking’ your heart

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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