People have suspected a link between stress, or other negative emotions, and heart problems for hundreds of years. Overwork, a common cause of stress, has been associated with heart attacks since at least the 19th century. Stress can affect heart health so profoundly that sometimes acute stress, like that caused by receiving bad news, can cause a sudden heart attack even in people who have no prior history of heart problems.
But why does stress cause heart attacks? Scientists have only recently begun to unravel the mystery. Stress can trigger inflammation and increase your risk of blood clots. Chronic or frequent stress can also tempt people into adopting coping behaviors that are unhealthy for your heart, such as overeating, drinking too much, or smoking tobacco.
The Link Between Stress and Heart Attacks
When someone has a sudden heart attack as a result of acute stress or emotional trauma, it’s known as “broken heart syndrome.” It happens as a result of the sudden rush of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which your body releases when you’re presented with a stressful situation. While heart attacks of this nature are rare, they do seem to happen more often in women, even when there’s no previous history of heart attacks. But this isn’t the only way stress affects your heart health.
Stress is implicated in a number of diseases, including asthma, obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research suggests that stress contributes to heart attacks — and perhaps other medical conditions as well — by triggering an increase in white blood cells that, in turn, ramps up inflammation within the body and, specifically, within the arteries. Increased inflammation in the arteries contributes to atherosclerosis, a key factor in heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Researchers have also discovered that stress changes the way the blood clots. In studies on mice, stress was found to cause white blood cells to clump together in the arteries and form arterial plaques of the kind implicated in heart attack and stroke. Stress may also raise cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
One study from Duke University Medical Center found that stress affects the heart health of men and women differently. The study looked at the effects of stress on cardiovascular health in 56 women and 254 men. The researchers found that women are more likely to experience the stress that was more likely to lead to the sort of arterial blockage that causes heart attacks. Women are more likely, under stress, to form blood clots. Men, on the other hand, experienced more pronounced changes in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress.
Manage Stress to Prevent Heart Attacks
While medications like Plavix can be used to prevent the blood clots that cause heart attack and stroke, medication isn’t the best way to control mental stress that’s not caused by a mental illness. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t receive treatment for atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions that can lead to heart attacks, but it does mean that you should make managing your stress a priority on the same level as managing other health problems.
Many people use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress, like drinking too much, smoking tobacco, or eating sweets or comfort foods. These coping mechanisms can backfire by increasing your heart attack risk. Instead, look for healthy ways to cope with stress.
Though it may sound overly simplistic, maintaining a positive attitude is one of the best ways to control stress. Pay attention to your self-talk, or the things you tell yourself about situations that arise in your life. Whether these self-statements are negative or positive can make a big difference in how much stress you feel and how well you manage it.
For example, when you’re having a bad day, try to say something positive to yourself, “I’ll be able to handle this day one step at a time,” instead of something more negative like, “I’ll never get through this day.” When a difficult situation arises, say, “I know how to deal with this situation,” instead of “I hate it when this happens.” You can stay positive without being unrealistically optimistic. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it can make things.
Many people deal with stress by making time each day for something they enjoy. When stress is overwhelming you, cuddle a pet, read a book, go out with friends, make time for a favorite hobby, watch a funny movie, or take a walk outside. Relax by doing yoga, meditating, or praying, or taking a hot bath. Learn to trigger the relaxation response and do it regularly.
Stress can make you feel irritable, tired, and upset, but it can also do a number on your health and could even cause a heart attack, whether or not you have any previous history of cardiovascular disease. You should take time every day to manage stress as though your life depends on it — because it does.