No one can avoid stress completely. But unmanaged stress can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease.
Stress appears to be a risk factor for heart disease, despite the fact that researchers don’t know exactly how. This is partly because it’s hard to measure stress and people react differently to it.
But it is also because it is not easy to determine whether stress is a risk factor itself for heart disease, or if it negatively affects other risk factors for heart disease, such as blood pressure, cholesterol or lifestyle behaviors. For example, when you are stressed, your blood pressure increases, you may skip exercise, overeat (especially convenience or fast foods) or smoke to try to cope with the stress. All of these factors increase your heart disease risk—especially when there’s no end in sight to the stress.
Even though we don’t know exactly how, the fact remains, research has shown stress increases your heart disease risk in these ways:
- The more stress you endure, the higher your risk of having a heart attack and dying suddenly from a heart event.
- Stress can cause angina/chest pain due to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which increases demand on the heart.
- Stress can damage the lining of artery walls (endothelium), increase cholesterol deposits to the artery wall, promote blood clotting, and release growth factors, all of which can lead to clogging of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
- Stress can increase blood sugar levels if you have diabetes, which increases your risk of heart disease and other preventable complications relating to diabetes, including eye, kidney, or nerve damage.
- Stress can temporarily cause a serious, although usually temporary, dysfunction of your heart that mimics a heart attack. This condition is known as Broken Heart Syndrome or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It can be triggered by a new medical diagnosis such as heart disease, an acute medical illness such as a heart event and/or bypass surgery, or a sudden intense emotional or physical stress (for example, the death of a relative, a catastrophic medical diagnosis, or devastating financial losses.)
Stress may also affect your health in other harmful ways:
- Stress and excessive worry can affect your sleep, making you irritable and putting you on edge.
- Stress can also lead to a weakened immune system and worsening of skin conditions such as eczema.
- Stress can cause digestive problems and obesity.
- Stress increases your risk for depression.
Learning to find healthy ways to relieve the tension that results from stress is vital to your heart and your general health.