Your Stressed Out Heart

All of us experience stress—such as before a test, when we are late or working under a deadline, or in traffic. Stress is a way for your body to adapt to changes in the environment. Although some stress is considered usual, research shows that prolonged stress or chronic stress can negatively impact your heart.

How does stress affect the heart? When we are under stress, our body responds by releasing a cascade of stress hormones and other chemicals that help the body prepare for the “fight or flight” response. Some of the most notable changes are an increased heart rate and breathing rate. Both of these responses increase blood flow to your tissues and make you more alert.

During prolonged or chronic stress, your heart rate and breathing rate are constantly elevated. This can lead to high blood pressure, a known risk factor for heart disease. Some research shows stress releases chemicals that increase inflammation, and chronic inflammation due to prolonged stress could impact the ability of the heart to function. However, the exact connection between inflammation and heart disease remains unclear.   

The most straightforward way that stress negatively impacts the heart is through changes in behavior. When we are under a lot of stress, we may reach for fast foods, snacks, and desserts. Foods used for stress relief are often high in fat, cholesterol, and calories, and regular consumption can lead to heart disease. In addition, people under stress may not have time to exercise or may feel too tired to exercise. The combined effects of poor diet and little exercise can lead to weight gain and obesity, which itself is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Managing stress is key to avoiding the potential negative impacts of stress on the heart. Here are some tips to reduce stress and improve cardiovascular health:

  • Don’t give in to temptation. No matter how much stress you’re under, make sure to maintain a healthy diet. If you find yourself reaching for cookies, potato chips or snack foods, try healthier alternatives like celery sticks or carrots.
  • Stay active. Exercise such as walking, riding a bicycle or working out help relieve stress, makes you feel better, and is good for your heart too.
  • Meditation and yoga. Mindfulness techniques help relieve stress and have been shown to help reduce risk factors for heart disease.
  • Have fun. Even just a few minutes of laughter and positivity can make a huge difference.
  • Do what you love—reading, writing, listening to music, sewing, art—activities that make you feel good will help your heart too.

Next steps

  1. Read more about Stress and Your Heart
  2. Learn how Genetic Heart Disease Risk Eased by Healthy Habits
  3. Read more about the Impact of Low Health Literacy on Heart Rate
  4. Subscribe to our blog to learn more about heart and cardiovascular health