The Effect of Stress on Your Heart


It’s impossible to avoid stress in the modern world. Whether you juggle too many responsibilities on a day-to-day basis or you’re dealing with a major stressor like the death of a loved one or job loss, stress can wreak havoc on your heart health. If you experience unrelenting stress over weeks or months, it could lead to emotional and psychological disturbances or even new or worsening physical problems. This includes heart disease and heart attack.

The Link Between Stress and Poor Heart Health

Medical researchers have yet to determine the exact way in which stress can cause a heart-related health issue. Your risk of a cardiac event goes up just by experiencing prolonged stress. However, researchers aren’t sure if elevated stress alone is the biggest risk factor or if stress exacerbates other symptoms such as high blood pressure. They do know that stress can cause you to make unhealthy choices, such as smoking, consuming too much alcohol or food, or isolating yourself and not exercising.

Stress by itself can increase your risk of a cardiac event because it raises your body’s stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Unfortunately, it can also cause blood clots that increase your chances of a heart attack.

The way you normally deal with stress has a big impact on whether you will develop heart disease later. People who end up with heart-related emergency often have several characteristics in common. Those who react to stress with anger, anxiety, fear, hostility, and general moodiness are more likely to suffer a serious heart event than those who take a more laid-back approach to life’s problems.

Understanding Your Stress Triggers

What one person finds stressful may not bother another person at all. Even though you won’t always understand what causes you to feel stress, it’s important to identify your triggers so you can plan to eliminate or control them as best you can. Triggers, also known as stressors, can be an everyday hassle like a long line at the grocery store or a major event like the death of your spouse. Other common stressors that most people experience at some point include:

  • Serious illness of either yourself or someone close to you
  • Job loss
  • Interviewing for and starting a new job
  • Too many responsibilities at home or work
  • Moving
  • Divorce or relationship change
  • Having a baby
  • Financial struggles
  • Legal problems
  • Traffic
  • Dealing with people in public
  • Unrealistic expectations of yourself or others
  • Grief after losing a loved one

How Your Body Lets You Know That You’re Under Too Much Stress

The human mind and body can withstand a lot of stress, but both have their limits. When you’re dealing with several stressors at once or a situation that just won’t let up, don’t feel surprised if you have behavioral, emotional, cognitive, or physical symptoms associated with it.

For example, a person going through extreme or prolonged stress might begin eating compulsively, abuse drugs or alcohol, change jobs often, withdraw from others, or act critically towards them. This could quickly alienate friends, family, and co-workers who don’t understand the sudden change in behavior.

Emotional symptoms of stress typically show up as anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, or irritability. If you were normally an optimistic person, you may find that your entire way of thinking changes. You dwell on negative thoughts and feel lonely because you have isolated yourself from people who could provide you with needed support.

Your cognitive process can also change dramatically due to stress. It could become difficult for you to concentrate or make decisions. You seem to forget things a lot more often as well. This could cause you to think that you have a serious illness, which only leads to more worry and stress.

Most people have an easier time attributing their physical symptoms to stress than their emotional, behavioral, or cognitive ones. Perhaps you recognize these signs of stress in yourself or others:

  • Clenched jaw and/or grinding teeth
  • Frequent stomach pain
  • Insomnia
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Joint and muscle pain

Once you make the connection between stress and your body’s signals, the next step is to learn how to reduce the stress on your mind and body.

Tips for Reducing Stress and the Risk of Heart Disease

If you smoke, drink too much alcohol, or abuse drugs, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health. However, it could be challenging to break the addiction on your own. Feel free to ask your primary care provider at UPMC Western Maryland for resources or consider checking into a treatment program if your life is unmanageable due to drug or alcohol use.

Eating a healthy diet and getting moderate exercise helps to reduce stress and your risk of heart disease as well. If your diet is very unhealthy or you’re mostly sedentary, ask your primary care provider for help getting started. It’s also important to make sure that you get enough rest.

Managing the stress in your life sometimes means that you need to say no to others. If you don’t have time to serve on the PTA or a church committee, simply say no without explaining yourself. It can feel awkward to start asserting yourself, but you will be healthier for it and people will respect you more. When you have too many things competing for your time, the things you do participate in should reflect your values.

Perhaps most importantly, try to keep a positive attitude and let go of the things you can’t control. That is pretty much everything except for your own response to the daily hassles and struggles of life. If you ever feel overwhelmed or that you can’t make these changes on your own, don’t hesitate to ask your primary care provider at UPMC Western Maryland for a referral to a therapist. Far from being a sign of weakness, recognizing that you need help and then getting it shows a deep inner resolve.

Reducing or eliminating stress doesn’t mean that you will never experience a heart health issue. However, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to lower the risk factors that you can control.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.