Woman stress mental health

Stress and the Heart

Can being stressed damage your heart?

October 10, 2022

It’s hard to avoid feeling stressed in our busy lives. There are deadlines at work, worries about making ends meet, and inevitable family conflicts. But should we be worried about these episodes which can literally make your blood boil? The answer it seems is complex.

What happens to the body when you are stressed?

When you are stressed or anxious, your body produces hormones like adrenaline which can make your heart temporarily beat faster and work harder. When this happens the blood vessels narrow, and your blood pressure goes up.

Most heart experts agree that this temporary rise in blood pressure is not dangerous and is something the body can manage perfectly well.

What about acute stress? Can you die of a broken heart?

Broken heart syndrome is real and can occur when the body is placed under extreme stress or fear – like being in a car accident or losing a loved one.

It’s caused by the heart muscle being temporarily weakened and can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.

Whilst symptoms are similar to having a heart attack, in most cases, the heart fully recovers.

Can stress provoke an inflammatory response in the body?

Some heart experts believe that stress may also affect our immune system which disrupts the normal functioning of the heart.

A study published in The Lancet found that heightened activity in the amygdala - a region of the brain involved in stress - was associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Researchers also found that people with this heightened activity also had increased bone marrow activity and inflammation in the arteries.

A smaller sub-study of 13 people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) also found those who reported the highest levels of stress had the highest levels of amygdala activity along with more signs of inflammation in their blood and the walls of their arteries.

However, it’s worth noting that both studies were small, and more research is needed.

A new study published in October 2022 from Harvard University also found a link between stress and developing Long Covid. Scientists think is linked to inflammation and the body’s ability to fight the COVID-19 infection. With the risk of heart disease heightened after having Long Covid, more research is clearly needed into the body’s inflammatory system.

How to get on top of stress and be heart healthy

When you are stressed, you are more likely to drink alcohol, eat badly, sleep poorly, and engage in less physical exercise – all factors linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Our experts advise one of the best ways to improve your heart and mental health is to exercise regularly.

When you exercise your blood vessels dilate. Exercise can also help with improved sleep and will also very importantly give you time out to clear your head and hopefully improve your mood.

Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and engaging in yoga or meditation are also advised to keep your stress levels under control.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years