Evidence shows a strong association between stress and heart disease, particularly when it comes to chronic or long-term stress. However, research into the exact nature of the relationship is still ongoing.

Chronic stress can have a cumulative effect on various aspects of human health, including the cardiovascular system. Stress can increase blood pressure and may make a person more likely to develop other risk factors for heart disease.

However, it can be difficult to study this, as the circumstances that lead to chronic stress can also affect health in many other ways.

This article explores the complex relationship between stress and heart disease and gives some tips for reducing the effects of stress on the heart.

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Yes, stress affects the heart and cardiovascular system. There are two types of stress: acute and chronic stress.

Acute stress

Acute stress is short-lived and usually occurs because of a single, isolated event. It results from the stress response, which is the body’s way of preparing a person for a perceived threat.

During the stress response:

  • blood pressure increases
  • the heart beats faster
  • breathing becomes faster and more shallow

However, these effects are temporary. Once the stressful event is over, the heart functions as usual.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress persists regularly over weeks, months, or longer. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), chronic stress can disrupt the heart’s functioning by:

  • increasing blood pressure
  • raising inflammation
  • contributing to irregular heart rate and rhythm
  • decreasing the flow of blood to the heart

However, scientists are still learning if or how this might lead to heart disease.

According to the AHA, it is unknown if stress alone can cause heart disease. Research suggests it can contribute to the risk when a person already has a predisposition for heart disease.

Acute stress

For most people, acute stress does not have a long-term effect on the heart.

However, research has shown that acute stress does lead to a temporary increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). For example, there is an increased rate of heart attacks in people who experience natural disasters.

Severe stress or intense emotions can also be a factor in takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.”

Chronic stress

Chronic stress has an association with heart disease but does not necessarily cause it directly. It can raise blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for conditions such as stroke, but this does not fully explain why some people get this type of CVD while others with chronic stress do not.

It may be that stress influences the risk in several ways. For example, stress links to behaviors that can raise the risk of heart disease, such as:

  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol use
  • physical inactivity
  • an imbalanced diet

This, in itself, could cause the development of heart disease in some cases. However, stress can also result from social and economic circumstances that have additional knock-on effects on heart health.

For example, financial insecurity can raise stress, but it may also be the reason why a person cannot access fresh food or the space or time to exercise.

This is known as a “confounding factor,” as it can obscure the true role of stress in heart disease. As a result, health experts sometimes call stress a “contributory risk” or “underlying determinant” of heart disease.

There are no surefire ways of determining whether stress is directly affecting the heart. People may notice an increase in heart rate and blood pressure when they are stressed, but this does not necessarily indicate that there is long-term damage.

Many factors can influence heart rate and blood pressure, including anxiety, other emotions, physical activity, and more.

That said, people should speak with a doctor if they have concerns. The following symptoms could indicate that they have CVD:

  • persistently high blood pressure
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • fatigue
  • swelling in the limbs

Learn more about the types and symptoms of heart disease.

Occasional stress is a part of life, but when it becomes chronic or severe, it can negatively affect health. Wherever possible, it is beneficial to reduce avoidable sources of stress by:

  • focusing only on the most important tasks
  • asking for help with things that feel overwhelming
  • saying “no” to things that are not necessary
  • delegating tasks to others

For unavoidable stress, it may help to learn relaxation techniques. These help bring heart rate and breathing down, returning the body to a calmer state. Some examples include:

  • doing breathing exercises
  • practicing yoga
  • meditating
  • doing tai chi or qigong

People can also increase their resilience to stress by:

  • keeping in touch with friends and family
  • exercising regularly, as this can lower blood pressure and relieve stress
  • getting enough sleep
  • doing enjoyable things, such as group activities or hobbies
  • avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine

Learn more about chronic stress and ways to manage it.

People who think stress might be affecting their heart, or who are experiencing persistent stress, should speak with a doctor.

Sometimes, what a person thinks is stress is actually anxiety. Anxiety is a treatable condition, with the help of talk therapy. There are also medications that can reduce the symptoms.

The symptoms of anxiety can be similar to those of a heart condition. For example, an anxiety attack can cause rapid breathing, a fast heart rate, nausea, and sweating, all of which are also heart attack symptoms.

A doctor can help rule out serious conditions and determine what is causing the symptoms. However, if there is ever any doubt as to whether a person is experiencing a heart attack, they should seek emergency help.

The symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • pain, tightness, or ache in the chest
  • pain spreading into the shoulder, arm, back, neck, or jaw
  • nausea, indigestion, or abdominal pain
  • unexplained shortness of breath
  • dizziness or fainting
  • sweating or clamminess

Even if the symptoms turn out to be anxiety, it is better to be safe and have the symptoms checked out.

Stress has an association with heart disease, but scientists are still learning how one affects the other.

It is clear that stress can lead to behaviors that may contribute to heart disease risk, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating an imbalanced diet. However, this does not entirely explain the connection between stress and CVD.

More research is necessary to understand the role stress plays in heart disease, but reducing and managing stress may help lower the risk.