Stress and Heart Attacks: Why Prevention Often Starts "From the Neck Up"

06/16/2015 | 6 min. read

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Stress and Heart Attacks: Why Prevention Often Starts

As I celebrate my twentieth year with Healthy Directions, I’ve been reflecting back on my life—to my earliest years as a practicing cardiologist. One of my most vivid memories was the “aha” moment that led me to realize the powerful connection between heart disease and emotional stress.

Early on in my career I had been working so hard I became out of touch with my own feelings. As I stood over the stretcher of a man and father my own age—one I was about to pronounce dead—I read his chart to find out how someone could die so suddenly of a massive heart attack. My heart was heavy with sadness, and a sense of failure that my despite my best efforts I was unable to save him.

It was the 1980s. I was in my early thirties and my cardiology practice was thriving and growing, as were my children. My life was filled with a lot of purpose and hard work. My future was bright. But was I missing something?

Why Stress Can Lead to Heart Attacks and Sudden Cardiac Death

I knew only too well that nearly 50% of the time the first sign of heart disease is sudden cardiac death (SCD). Why such a tough statistic? I’d just been reading some research theories by a West Coast physician named Meyer Friedman, who proposed that stress and the “Type A” personality might have something to do with developing high blood pressure as well as heart disease.

The death of that young father caused me to take a hard look in the mirror at myself. I, too, had many of the same Type-A behaviors that can led to sudden cardiac death—including overworking, overachieving, time urgency, and the desire to win at all costs. But realizing that those same behaviors could lead to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis was a real wake-up call.

So, I enrolled in a Gestalt psychotherapy training program to begin to learn how to observe possible connections between stress and cardiac events in my own patients. It didn’t take long for me to see patterns.

One prime example was a man who ruptured his aorta while holding in his rage at being forced to drive his boss to the airport after that same boss had forced him to fire his favorite employee.

Another example was a young, long distance truck driver who developed serious cardiac problems while struggling to meet unrealistic driving deadlines. Plus, I treated a prominent attorney who became so angry at a teenager for scratching his beloved car that he suffered a terrible heart attack. There was clearly a powerful heart-brain connection.

I Began to Address the Stress-Heart Disease Connection with My Own Patients

I began to modify my own patient interviewing tactics, and started asking questions like “So, what was going on in your life at the time your heart attacked you?” Some patients were started and surprised at that question, but others relaxed as if they had been waiting for someone to ask.

Their heartfelt answers helped me to get to the root of their heart issues. They also made me curious about the effect emotions had on high blood pressure, especially when the pharmaceutical drugs that I was schooled to rely upon weren’t working.

I learned from those patients, long before there was any research, that suppressed anger and stress could elevate blood pressure and trigger major cardiac events.

Yet, I Knew My Own Type-A Traits Could Make Me the Next Heart Attack Victim

When I realized just how powerfully stress can impact cardiovascular health, I realized that I could be a walking time bomb myself. If I didn’t address my own level of stress, and my “Type A” struggle to do more in less time, it could be me on that stretcher next. But even with that awareness, I didn’t really slow down.

Instead, I decided to go back to school and study cardiology “from the neck up.” For two years, Gestalt training expanded my awareness. I needed more, though, and found it in a book entitled Bioenergetics by Dr. Alexander Lowen. This book changed my life.

Lowen talked about “blocked energy” in the body caused by repressed emotional experiences—such as traumatic experiences in childhood that the conscious mind had already forgotten, but the body remembers. His bottom line is that, “the body always tells the truth.” That’s something I firmly believe.

I signed up to study with Dr. Lowen and began to release my own blocked energy. Through my personal therapy with him and John Pierrakos, author of Core Energetics, I gained powerful knowledge that could indeed make me a better doctor and a more balanced human being.

I then went on to earn a certification as a Bioenergetic Psychotherapist and have used much of that learning in my cardiology practice to help patients release stress and stay heart-healthy.

How Can You Use the Heart-Stress Connection to Improve Your Own Heart Health?

The problem with emotional stress is that it triggers your body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response. The release of adrenaline raises your blood pressure and increases your heart rate and breathing. Even if you’re not directly aware of this feeling, low grade stress that can start to feel normal for you can affect your heart.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? First, take a good hard look at your life. Are you sleeping enough, exercising, and making time for emotional connections? Or, are you constantly racing from task to task—feeling like you’re on a treadmill and can never catch up?

Be very honest with yourself. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably so busy that you’re not taking time to slow down and get in touch with your body. Also, if you have symptoms like high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation, it’s doubly important to get in touch with your emotions and your stress level.

It’s also important to work with a doctor who doesn’t just prescribe medications, but treats each patient holistically. If you’re having trouble finding that type of doctor, here’s my list of “top docs.” Plus, in an upcoming blog I’ll be giving you even more insights into the heart-emotion connection.

Now, it’s your turn: Have you found that stress impacts your blood pressure or heart health?

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Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Meet Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy.

More About Dr. Stephen Sinatra