Stress, both acute and chronic, creates changes in the body. This article looks at how stress affects the heart. The link between stress and heart disease has been discussed but not fully understood. Scientists are still working to discover the exact mechanisms by which stress leads to an increased risk of heart disease.
The “fight or flight” response of acute stress is known to produce a cascade of responses in the body. These are meant to prepare the body to defend itself in an emergency.
Stress and the Heart
The acute stress response includes an increased heart rate, stronger contractions of the heart, and constriction of blood vessels in some areas of the body.These changes all result in an increased blood pressure. In some severe cases a sudden stressor can lead to a heart attack. For more information about the acute stress response read the blog post: “What is the Stress Response“.
The way in which chronic stress affects the heart is still being studied. It has long been thought that there is a link between chronic stress and an increased risk of heart disease. However, the exact mechanisms weren’t known. Further studies have led to some insights on the link between stress and heart disease.
Learn more about stress here: Stress Management
Chronic stress does not raise blood pressure directly. However, many people “manage” stress by over-indulging in alcohol, smoking and snacking. Snacking on “comfort food” that are high in fat and cholesterol can lead to weight gain and damage to arterial walls. Both of these changes put an extra load on the heart.
Chronic stress affects a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala has been found to increase the risk of heart disease in two ways. First, activity in the amygdala triggers and increase in the production of white blood cells, which are part of the body’s immune response. This is good in the short term, as it helps the body fight infection. Chronically high levels of white blood cells in the arteries lead to plaque formation on the walls that narrow the arteries and lead to high blood pressure. Stimulating the amygdala also leads to an increase in inflammation in the arteries. This inflammation can increase the risk of heart disease.
Limit Your Risk
So, we know there is a link between stress and the heart. A risk factor is not a death sentence! There are many articles out there giving advice on how to manage your stress in healthy ways. Some of the suggestions are:
- relax your muscles
- breathe deeply
- eat a well-balance, healthy diet
- hug someone
- make time for hobbies
A Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal discussed how we can change our body’s response to stress by changing our attitude toward stress. So, if you think stress will kill you, it will. But, if you think stress is helpful your body doesn’t go through some of the damaging changes that lead to increased risk of death. The mind is a powerful tool!
Here’s the link to the Ted Talk: “How to Make Stress Your Friend“.