Healthy Hearts

Stress and your Heart


man showing signs of stress

Stress and anxiety can certainly impact your physical, emotional and mental health, and in popular culture and common lingo, we often connect the dots between stress and heart health. We talk about “stress and heartache” or “being worried to death.” Yet there is still no absolute known direct causal link between stress and heart disease. What we do know, is that stress causes the body to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which can affect heart health.

Because there are many shared symptoms between stress and heart disease, it is not uncommon for patients to see their doctor or go to the emergency room believing they are having a cardiac event when in fact they are responding to stress. This being said, never assume; if you experience symptoms that feel like they could be cardiac in nature, always check with your doctor.

Symptoms related to both stress and heart disease can include heart palpitations or a feeling of a racing heart, fatigue, chest pain/discomfort and depression. Most patients experience acute anxiety and stress an increase in heart rate and/or blood pressure. This is due to your body’s fight or flight response. Some believe this can strain your heart if occurring on a regular basis.

Other symptoms associated with or caused by stress can include:

  • muscle tension
  • stomach disorders
  • poor sleep
  • headaches
  • weight change
  • general aches and pains
  • inability to focus
  • irritability/anger
  • self-medicating with alcohol or drugs

Heart disease and mental health can be related in other ways too.  It’s common for patients who have suffered a heart attack or other cardiac event to experience depression or anxiety after the episode. It is also true that patients who are overly stressed and/or depressed tend to heal or recover from illnesses more slowly than others, and the corollary holds—patients generally improve much more quickly and effectively once they receive mental health treatment.

Despite the lack of direct causality between stress and heart disease, the most common way that stress affects the heart lies in the way people tend to cope with stress. Common behavioral responses to stress include cigarette smoking, over eating, drinking more caffeinated beverages and/or drinking alcohol or using drugs. Each of these has proven negative links to heart disease.

So while the science has yet to make a definitive causal connection between stress and heart disease, there are plenty of associated negative impacts. Reducing and managing your stress levels is certainly an important step to better quality of life and improved heart health.

By Sarah Coker, MD, Roper St. Francis Physician Partners Behavioral Health

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