Researchers say the drugs can block adrenaline and help stabilize your heart.
You really can give yourself heart problems by getting too worked up.
Anger and stress can lead to atrial fibrillation — a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to heart failure and other serious cardiovascular problems.
There’s even a term for the condition: emotion-triggered atrial fibrillation.
However, a new study published today shows that drugs known as beta blockers — which reduce adrenaline levels, slow the heart, and reduce blood pressure — could prevent you from blowing a proverbial gasket when you lose your temper or get stressed out.
Adrenaline is released during the body’s so-called “fight-or-flight” response, which can be activated by strong emotions. Also known as epinephrine, the hormone amps up your body in a crisis.
But it also can cause health problems when released chronically due to stress.
The year-long study conducted by researchers at Yale University concluded that patients with a history of atrial fibrillation (AFib) were far less likely to suffer an anger-triggered or stress-triggered episode of arrhythmia if they took beta blockers.
“We found that among patients on beta blockers there was some anger-related AFib, but it was much attenuated,” Dr. Rachel Lampert, a professor of internal medicine (cardiology) at the Yale School of Medicine, told Healthline.
A previous study by the same research group, published in 2014, was the first to show that patients with a history of AFib often had subsequent episodes associated with anger or stress, according to Lampert.
The study confirmed anecdotal reports about negative emotions triggering atrial fibrillation episodes among patients who had the intermittent form of the ailment. The hearts of other types of patients are in AFib at all times, noted Lampert.
The latest study was conducted between 2004 and 2009 and reported in HeartRhythm, the journal of the Heart Rhythm Society and the Cardiac Electrophysiology Society.
It involved 95 participants who recorded their daily emotions in an electronic diary for a year. Participants also used a handheld monitor to capture their heart rhythm and signs of atrial fibrillation.
Of the study subjects, 56 had been prescribed beta blockers by their physicians. Lampert and her colleagues identified beta blockers as a potential protective factor and conducted a follow-up study using the same data.
“The results showed that patients taking beta blockers experienced anger and stress as often as those not taking these medications,” the researchers said in a statement. “However, these emotional episodes increased the odds of AFib by just four times compared with 20 times in those not taking beta blockers.”
“In participants taking beta blockers not including anti-arrhythmic properties the effect was even stronger, completely blocking the pro-arrhythmic effect of anger or stress,” the researchers added.
“While patients often describe anger or stress triggering their emotions, our data show that this is more than just anecdote,” said Lampert. “We show that beta blockers can block the deleterious effects of emotion in those prone to emotion-triggered AFib.”
“In some ways this confirms what we’ve suspected,” Dr. Rahul Aggarwal, an interventional cardiologist with Tenet Florida Physician Services, told Healthline. “We’ve always had a hunch that stress causes AFib and we know that beta blockers reduce the stress response.”
In fact, Aggarwal said that patients who come to the emergency room with stress-related AFib are often treated with intravenous beta blockers, which can sometimes shut down the episode.
“We’ve been doing that for decades,” he said.
Lampert noted that because AFib cannot always be treated, symptom management is critical to maintain a good quality of life.
“Confirming the impact of emotion on arrhythmia can point the way to further therapies,” she said.
Physicians and their patients also should consider ways to control stress and anger without medication, such as yoga or meditation, added Aggarwal.
Aggarwal estimated that stress, whether related to emotions, trauma, or infections, causes up to 40 percent of all AFib hospitalizations. He added that emotion-triggered AFib represents about 15 to 20 percent of the cases he sees.
Other triggers can range from caffeine and alcohol use to dehydration and sleep apnea.
“It’s important to get a good patient history and to get a good handle on the triggers,” he said.
Beta blockers are used to treat a wide range of health conditions, from high blood pressure and heart failure to migraine.
By blocking the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, they make the heart beat slower and less forcefully.
The drugs have been shown to reduce coronary mortality by preventing people from having a second heart attack.
Some of beta blockers’ side effects include drowsiness, fatigue, dizziness, and weakness.
“Some patients will benefit” from getting beta blockers to prevent emotion-triggered atrial fibrillation, Dr. Wilbert Aronow, a researcher and professor of medicine at Westchester Medical Center/New York Medical College, told Healthline. “In addition, beta blockers can also slow a rapid ventricular rate in these patients, reduce ventricular arrhythmias… reduce an elevated blood pressure which increases the chance of developing a stroke… reduce angina pectoris if these patients have angina due to coronary artery disease, and are effective in treating heart failure which may be present in patients with atrial fibrillation.”