Can Stress Kill You: Stress & Heart Disease

12/22/2021 | 6 min. read

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

We’ve all heard a common trope before: Don’t stress about it. Sure, that’s great advice; putting it into practice is the challenging part.

When people tell someone not to stress about something, they usually refer to stress’s emotional or psychological effects. Common synonyms of the phrase might be “chill out” or simply “relax.” What they’re saying is, “don’t worry.”

But that is not the way we are designed. We do worry. Worry (or stress) plays a vital part in our body’s internal warning system—producing the fight-or-flight response.

However, there is a marked difference between the stress reflex that comes from fleeing danger and the emotional stressors of daily life. One could help save your life; the other could end it.

Believe it or not, stress can contribute to some pretty serious health conditions, like heart disease. So, saying that stress could kill you is not an exaggeration, though there is more to it.

What Is Stress?

In one sense, stress is a subjective term; it can mean something different depending on who you ask. It is also ubiquitous. It doesn’t start or stop depending on where you are; it follows you. Stress is also hard to measure since stress thresholds vary from person to person.

The most generic definition of stress could be a physical, mental, or emotional strain. But is it a feeling or condition? Well, probably both. Stress can certainly have both an internal and external effect.

In terms of feelings, stress can be the sense of feeling overwhelmed or inability to cope with life’s emotional or mental pressures.

What Causes Stress?

Since stress can be so subjective, the stress triggers can vary from person to person. Even so, some stressors are generally common to all. Stress can be acute, like the fight-or-flight as mentioned above response, or chronic. Chronic stress comes from the demands of daily life. These are the ones that could prove dangerous to our health if left uncontrolled.

Here are some common external causes of stress:

  • Difficulties at work or loss of a job
  • Problems in school
  • Financial problems
  • Divorce, separation, or relationship issues
  • Injury or illness
  • Bereavement
  • Retirement
  • Major life changes

Interestingly (and sadly), a 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 80 percent of Americans report significant stress about the future of the nation.

External stressors come from that feeling of pressure mentioned above, the worry that comes from facing big changes and challenges in life. Often these types of situations are out of our control and leave us in uncertainty about the future.

Stress can also be caused from within; internal causes might include:

  • Pessimism or negative self-talk
  • Perfectionism or unrealistic expectations
  • Inflexible or rigid thinking
  • Inability to accept uncertainty

Stress Effects on the Body

When someone says they’re feeling stressed out, what do they mean? Is it just a bad feeling, or is it something more?

It may be hard to explain how or why we are stressed, but we certainly know when we feel stressed. Generally, when we say we are stressed out, we’re describing the emotional effects of stress. But these emotional effects could be pointing to something happening below the surface. The emotional effects of stress might make one feel anxious, angry, sad, frustrated, or even depressed.

The physical symptoms of stress are unique for each person, but some common symptoms might include:

  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Aches and pains
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
  • Low energy
  • Digestive issues

Again, physical symptoms can include much more. But these are just symptoms. There is a lot more going on under the surface. Chronic stress affects all the systems of the body, such as the respiratory, endocrine, cardiovascular system, and more.

Stress and Our Hearts

Even if we don’t see it, it is important to realize that a lot is going on when our body’s response to stress. When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that trigger the fight-or-flight response.

This is great when you’re in the midst of an actual life or death situation. However, a constant hormonal response to chronic stress can take a toll on your health. In short, it is not suitable for your body to be in the continuous physiological state of fight-or-flight.

Stress hormones can affect both your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. In times of stress, they cause us to breathe faster, delivering oxygen-rich blood to our bodies and organs to help us escape danger.

Our hearts pump faster under stress as hormones cause the blood vessels to constrict, diverting blood to the muscles to flee or fight. But, this also raises our blood pressure.

The point is this, constant or prolonged stress can make your body work too hard for too long. If left unchecked, it can contribute to heart issues, leading to things like heart attacks.

Stress and Heart Issues

Most people don’t think about stress being a risk factor for heart issues. They assume it is caused by other lifestyle factors, such as smoking or poor diet (which is also true). However, as we have seen, chronic stress can be just as potent of an enemy.

Largely due to the hormonal responses discussed above, heart issues risk factors related to stress can include:

  • High heart rate, including heart arrhythmias
  • Thickening of blood, which can lead to clotting

Perhaps one of the biggest issues with chronic stress is its effect on the coronary arteries.

Chronic stress can trigger the inflammatory response that leads to plaque buildup in the arteries, narrowing them and restricting proper blood flow. This can cause heart attacks.

Protecting Your Heart from Stress

Stress management is much easier said than done, but steps must be taken for the sake of health—protecting your heart from stress is an important job. Simple things can sometimes mitigate stress in our lives, such as having a pet, listening to relaxing music, spending time with loved ones, and more.

Here are some other helpful tips for managing stress:

  • Get physical exercise – Even 20 minutes of exercise a day can do wonders for your body and mind as it helps release feel-good endorphins. Walking, dancing, lifting weights, anything physical that you enjoy.
  • Get plenty of sleep – Believe it or not, sleep is an integral part of mood regulation. Don’t skimp on getting the rest you need.
  • Fortify your body – There are powerful herbal supplements, such as ashwagandha, that can support mood and provide relief from stress — it works well when combined with B-complex vitamins.

The Bottom Line

So, can stress kill you? If left unchecked, chronic stress can contribute to heart disease, which can be fatal. Chronic stress can also lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as poor diet, smoking, and drinking—all risk factors for heart disease.

Stress can look different from person to person, but it affects us all in some form or fashion at the end of the day. Taking the proper steps to reduce it can positively impact our health, and most importantly, our heart.

Sources:

Daily Life | Stress.org

2021 Stress Survey | APA Stress Snapshot

Adrenaline | Hormone.org

Effect of increase in cortisol level due to stress in healthy young individuals on dynamic and static balance scores | NIH

Healthy Directions Staff Editor