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People who experience a lot of stress have likely been told more than once in their lives that stress can kill them. Or, that stress can cut their lives short.

But can it really? Can stress lead to heart attacks or other issues that could be dangerous to your health?

Well, according to research, it can. Increased psychological stress is associated with cardiovascular health issues, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Indeed, psychological stress may be as dangerous to your heart’s health as traditional cardiac risk factors, like:

  • obesity
  • high blood pressure
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • physical inactivity

This article will look at how stress can affect your heart and the connection between stress and heart attacks.

Stress is not always a negative thing. In fact, it can be useful.

Short-term stress can give you energy to finish a project or meet a deadline. It can push you to perform better in a public speaking engagement. It can help you make a split-second decision, such as in a life threatening situation.

You can even feel stressed in happy moments, like a new marriage, a new home, or meeting new people.

But too much stress — and stress at times when you aren‘t in a threatening situation — can be dangerous to your overall well-being and your heart’s health.

Long-term (chronic) stress may be the result of ongoing worries about a job, a relationship, a health condition, or economic circumstances. It may present itself as:

No two causes of stress are the same, and no two people will have the same experience with it.

Chronic stress can cause symptoms like:

  • tense muscles
  • low energy
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • upset stomach

Chronic stress may also leave you feeling not in control of your emotions or actions. You might have mood swings more frequently.

Stress also sets off the fear center of your brain. It tells your body that you are in fight-or-flight mode, even in everyday situations like working or driving a car. It sends a flood of cortisol, a stress hormone, into your body to “respond“ to the stress.

Over time, the increased levels of stress hormones can lead to a cascade of unwanted effects, such as:

Stress can affect many parts of your body, especially your heart and cardiovascular system.

A 2021 analysis looked at more than 900 patients with underlying but stable heart disease. The researchers wanted to see how people’s hearts and the blood flow to their hearts responded to both physical and emotional stress. Reduced blood flow to the heart can trigger heart attacks and other cardiovascular events

The study participants had standardized physical and mental stress tests and the impact of those tests on the blood flow to their heart was measured.

The analysis found that mental stress took a greater toll on the hearts of the participants during one or both of the study’s tests. The participants who were subjected to mental stress were also more likely to have a nonfatal heart attack or die of cardiovascular disease in the years following the tests.

In other words, stress takes a significant toll on your heart health, and it increases your risk of heart attack and stroke for years to come, too.

This analysis confirmed an earlier study of more than 24,000 patients in 52 countries. This study found that people who experienced a high level of psychological stress in the year before the study were twice as likely to have a heart attack in the 5-year follow-up period of the study.

Your brain’s impact on your heart

Among other things, research points to a region of the brain known as the amygdala to explain the stress response. The amygdala is also known as the “fear center“ of the brain.

When you feel stressed or anxious, the amygdala switches on, and it sends a flood of stress hormones into your body to activate the fight-or-flight response. It also reduces the flow of blood to the heart, which deprives your heart of much-needed oxygen and nutrients.

In a life threatening situation, this is necessary. It prepares you to fight for your life or to flee. But on a normal workday when your boss or your co-worker has upset you, this natural response is not as helpful.

Over time, this constant high hormone level can increase your blood pressure. It can also lead to:

  • inflammation in your arteries
  • higher levels of body fat
  • greater insulin resistance

All of these effects can promote plaque buildup and arterial disease that increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

A 2020 review suggests that the risk posed by stress is similar to the risk posed by other well-known heart attack risks factors, including:

  • overweight or obesity
  • poor diet
  • lack of exercise

While doctors may think to talk with their patients about maintaining a moderate weight and eating a balanced diet in order to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the latest research suggests discussions about stress level and reducing stress may be warranted, too.

Chronic psychological stress is linked to a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. But positive mental health can help lower your risk of these events.

Managing stress is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It may take weeks or months to figure out what types of stress management techniques best help you reign in stress and reverse the physical effects that chronic stress can have on your body.

Consider trying these steps to help manage stress in a healthy way:

  • Move more. Regular exercise helps decrease blood pressure, manage weight, and combat the many cardiovascular risks associated with heart attack, including psychological stress. You don’t have to do a lot of exercise to reap the rewards. Start out with 15 to 20 minutes of walking per day, and build up to a pace and duration that is comfortable for you.
  • Focus on sleep. Sleep and stress have an interconnected relationship. Often, people who are experiencing chronic stress have problems getting enough sleep, which can worsen stress and its symptoms, like irritability and mood swings. Start by creating a room that is conducive to sleep — a cool, dark space with no outside light or noise — and try to avoid interruptions to your sleep cycle, like exercising late in the evening or eating too close to bedtime. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and take a short nap if you need to, but not too late in the day.
  • Stay connected. Meeting up with friends or going to dinner with family is about more than just catching up on news or celebrating a birthday. These friendships and relationships can help improve your heart health and reduce your stress levels, too.
  • Be mindful. Meditation, controlled breathing exercises, and gentle forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi all work to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the body helps calm the brain and reduce the impacts of stress.
  • Distract yourself. A hobby or new pastime won’t end chronic stress, but it can help distract you from negative thoughts and push away worries. When you’re not focused on these issues, your brain and body get a chance to relax. Over time, these distractions may take up more of your brain’s capacity than the stress.

Reducing stress is not the only measure for boosting your heart’s health and cutting your risk of a heart attack. You can take other measures to bolster your heart health and overall well-being. These steps include:

  • Exercise. This is mentioned twice because it’s that important. Exercise reduces levels of cortisol. It also releases endorphins — hormones that combat stress, boost heart health, and increase circulation throughout the body. (Remember, stress reduces blood flow to the heart).
  • Take a nap. A healthy sleep routine is important to reducing stress levels and combating the effects of stress, but a nap can play an immediate role in boosting heart health. During a nap, cortisol levels fall, which erases some of the stress you’re experiencing.
  • Eat better. A balanced, heart-healthy diet consists of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (like fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes), and whole grains. These nutrient-rich foods can improve cholesterol levels and help you manage your weight and blood sugar levels.
  • Get vaccinated. Diseases like COVID-19 put people with heart disease or heart health issues at greater risk of complications and death. Getting vaccinated helps reduce the risk of an infection, and if you do test positive, the vaccine can help lower the risk of serious complications.
  • Try medication. If you’re still experiencing too much stress, talk with a doctor. Certain prescription medications can help reduce the impact of anxiety on your body, including your heart. Some drugs can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack.

Stress is a powerful force. It can help you power through tasks, but it can also take a toll on your body, specifically on your heart.

Research shows that chronic stress can lead to inflammation in the arteries, plaque buildup, and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

In fact, stress is as significant a risk factor for a heart attack as other well-known risks, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Reducing stress isn‘t as easy as flipping a switch. It requires work and persistence, but reversing the effects of stress on your body and heart is vital to your health.