Heart Disease Protection Stress

Stress and heart health have been linked by popular wisdom and by an association between high stress and health problems in general. But the existence of a specific and direct connection between stress and heart health is still somewhat uncertain. The American Heart Association (2010) is reluctant to recommend stress reduction as a proven therapy for cardiovascular disease.

The difficulty lies in the definition of “stress,” which is a term usually applied to psychosocial and environmental factors that may lead to physical effort and mental tension, like job strain, financial worries or social isolation. Acute and chronic stress may or may not contribute directly to heart disease, but stress clearly raises some risk factors indirectly, including those associated with high blood pressure, overeating, smoking, drinking and inactivity.

Stress and Health

When our environment provides a psychological challenge such as a loud noise or unexpected threat, our parasympathetic nervous system initiates a series of changes commonly called a “fight-or-flight” response. To prepare our bodies as we face or run away from the threat, hormones, adrenaline-like substances and cortisol are produced by our kidneys and the pituitary gland in our brains. Blood is channeled to our brains and large muscles, and heart stress test results typically show a quickening heartbeat and rising blood pressure.

These physical changes may be life-saving under some circumstances. Ideally, cortisol levels, adrenaline and blood pressure return to normal once the threat is dealt with sufficiently. When stressful circumstances persist, chronic high blood pressure and other continuing elements of the stress response can become damaging to your health.

In the specific relationship between stress and heart health, the greatest concerns come from chronic high blood pressure and the behavioral responses we enact to deal with the ongoing threat. In other words, the sweaty palms and the tense muscles of the fight-or-flight response aren’t the factors that cause heart disease. Rather, the chronic high blood pressure and the self-soothing mechanisms of smoking, drinking, overeating and inactivity are the factors that increase the risk of heart disease.

The Importance of Stress Reduction

While some in the medical community are reluctant to use heart stress test results to define a direct link between stress and heart disease, patients recovering from heart disease or heart surgery clearly experience anxiety and depression. If left untreated, these conditions can slow recovery rates and weaken immunity.

After a heart attack or cardiac surgery, anxious and depressed patients tend to experience more intense pain and fatigue than other cardiac patients and they also tend to be at increased risk of readmission to the hospital or a second heart attack.

Regardless of study results specific to cardiovascular health, a link is evident between stress and health in general, and depression and chronic stress can be serious conditions. If you feel depressed, overwhelmed or anxious, especially after you’ve had a heart attack, stroke, heart stress test or heart surgery, talk to a doctor right away.

Resources

American Heart Association. (2010). Stress and heart disease. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4750

Burg, M. (2007). Stress, behavior and heart disease. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.med.yale.edu/library/heartbk/8.pdf

Cleveland Clinic. (2010). Depression and heart disease. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/stress/depressionandheart.aspx