Acute and chronic stress affect our heart health differently.

Can stress lead to a bad heart?

Is stress a common part of your life? When work deadlines, family commitments and everything else life throws at you all start to pile up, so do our feelings of stress. Stress is a natural response to our life experiences, which can often help us stay motivated and focused on the task at hand. But while stress in small doses is considered perfectly normal, acute and chronic stress may impact our health in the long term, in particular, our heart health.

According to Medibank’s Better Health Index, more than one in four Aussies were overstressed in 2017. Younger Aussies were most affected by stress, with 18-24 year olds struggling the most and 25-34 year olds trailing close behind.

So how does stress affect our health? Read on to find out.

The stress response

You’re about to stand up and give a speech to a big crowd, full of unfamiliar faces. Your breath quickens. Your palms get sweaty. Your muscles tense. As you step up and look into the audience, you feel your heart racing.

What you’re experiencing is your body’s “fight-or-flight” or stress response, a signal sent from the brain that prepares you to take action. This same response enabled our ancestors and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations and ultimately flee to safety.

Today, our bodies still regularly react to life-stressors — traffic jams, work pressure, family difficulties — which may not be life-threatening, but are still stressful. When stressed, your brain sounds the alarm telling your adrenal glands to release the body’s stress hormones; cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Together these hormones work to rev up your heart rate, raise your blood pressure and send glucose and blood rushing to your muscles and brain to prepare them for action. This powerful and almost instant response can take its toll on our health when experienced intensely or over long periods of time.

How stress affects the heart

While more research needs to be conducted on the direct link between stress and coronary heart disease, stress does elevate blood pressure and high blood pressure is a major risk factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. Stress has also been known to contribute to certain lifestyle behaviours — such as smoking, physical inactivity and overeating — which are all known factors that may put someone at greater risk of developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

The emotions caused by acute stress have also been linked to heart health issues. In a 10 year review of the effects of stress on the heart, the paper “Psychosocial risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD)” reported that sudden emotional stress — such as experiencing bereavement after the death of a loved one — may be a contributing factor for a heart attack. However, the overall increase in your risk from an isolated stressor is low.

With coronary heart disease being one of Australia’s leading causes of death today, it’s important to understand your personal stress levels and how you can take steps to minimise this risk.

Read more: 6 ways to keep your heart healthy

Keeping stress in check

Researchers have recently studied how therapeutic activities such as meditation and mindfulness may act as an intervention strategy to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In 2017, the American Heart Association suggested that practices such as meditation may possibly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and could be used as an adjunct to other treatments, but that more study in this area is warranted.

Whilst meditation may help you reduce your overall stress, many of us find that stress is concentrated to certain areas of our life. Stress in the workplace, for example, may be one contributing factor in increasing the risk of a heart attack, especially if you have a history of heart disease.

So, aside from meditation, what can we do to deal with this day-to-day stress?

  • Take your lunch breaks and go for a walk, eat in the park, get some fresh air. It can be 10 minutes or your allocated hour but by doing so you’ll be refreshed energised and have a more productive afternoon
  • Make sure you have a healthy work/life balance
  • Learn to say 'no', politely of course
  • Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by new commitments
  • Learn to relax with breathing and relaxation exercises
  • Allocate time to do the things you enjoy such as exercising, meditating, reading, gardening or listening to music.

If you experience highly intense or prolonged periods of stress, it is recommended you see your doctor and discuss other practical steps you can take.

Read more: 5 simple ways to relieve stress (without chocolate biscuits)