Stress and the Heart

Emotional stress, brought on by heartbreak, the economy and even natural disasters, can affect your heart health. Our tips to manage it.

We all know that our emotions affect our hearts. You can feel your heart “flutter” with anxiety and “pound” with anger.

But can emotional stress actually hurt your heart or even cause heart disease? And, if stress does jeopardize heart health, are there strategies to alleviate stress and protect your heart?

QUIZ: Find Your Stress Levels

Scientists debate these questions endlessly. Some argue that doctors should focus on “real” medicine—if you can’t see it on a CT scan or x-ray, it’s not there. Others agree with William Shakespeare, poet John Donne and a host of other writers and artists who recognized the truth—emotional stress can be bad for the heart.

Stress and the Heart

Does Stress Cause Heart Disease?

Dozens of scientific studies confirm that people who experience the most stress, whether job-related, marital or economic, face an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and suffering heart attacks. The question is whether chronic and repeated stress actually causes damage to the heart’s arteries.

Acute stress certainly causes changes in the body’s physiology. Release of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones activates our “fight-or-flight response.” This includes increases in heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation, blood clotting and blood glucose (sugar). Over time, it is certainly possible that chronic exposure to these physiologic changes could damage the insides of arteries and set the stage for formation of obstructing plaques.

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But there is another factor at work.

When stressed, people tend to embrace unhealthy behaviors. Stressed at work or at home, people eat too much of the wrong foods, smoke cigarettes, abandon exercise and sometimes forget to take prescribed medications. These behaviors certainly increase the risk of developing heart disease.

Which hurts heart health more, the changes in physiology or the stress-induced behaviors?

Doctors argue quite a bit about this question, but the answer is irrelevant. When it comes to devising a plan to manage emotional stress, they are a package deal. The best strategy is to reduce emotional stress and avoid the unfavorable behaviors that accompany it. We’ll tell you how to do this—right after we answer one more important question.

MORE: Tips to Quell Anxiety

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