Understanding the Stress-Heart Health Connection
Stress doesn’t simply spill into our personal lives, it affects the body in many ways. And it isn’t only short-term ailments like tension headaches or muscle pain to be mindful of — ongoing stress can take a heavy toll on your long-term heart health. In recent years, numerous research studies have found that stress can increase a person’s risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
While many people know that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, genetics, and smoking are all key heart disease risk factors, stress isn’t always included in conversations about heart health. As you prioritize a heart-healthy lifestyle, regularly evaluate your stress levels, taking steps to reduce stress and manage it positively when it does arise.
Here’s more on the stress-heart health connection, including coping strategies that will benefit your heart as much as your mind.
How does stress affect the heart?
Stress triggers physiological changes in the body that can influence heart health. It all starts in the brain. When you encounter a stressful trigger, the amygdala — a portion of the brain responsible for emotional processing — communicates that you are in distress, activating your nervous system.
As part of this process, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, which can temporarily increase blood pressure and insulin resistance. Sometimes the body’s experience of stress also leads to inflammation in the arteries. Over time this can affect the function of your blood vessels, potentially resulting in atherosclerosis, or the accumulation of plaque in the walls of your arteries.
Less directly, stress has a ripple effect on lifestyle factors related to heart health. Everyone responds to stress in different ways. For some, exercise might be a positive outlet during challenging times. But for others, stress makes it difficult to fit in consistent exercise. (The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.) And stress frequently goes hand in hand with unhealthy behaviors like smoking and heavy alcohol consumption or other substance use.
There is also the link between stress and sleep, another less discussed heart health risk factor. The overactive nervous system created by chronic stress — and its continuous output of hormones — can create a vicious cycle of anxiety-fueled insomnia and insomnia-fueled anxiety.
Key symptoms of stress
Stress presents differently from one person to another. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor about stress management techniques and other resources.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Regular headaches
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Feelings of isolation or worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities
- Anger and irritability
- Chronic worrying or obsessive thinking
- Increased substance use
Strengthen your heart and stress less
Stress relief doesn’t have to be a big endeavor. Look for small opportunities, like the following, to engage the body and mind in your daily or weekly routine. (Your heart will thank you!)
Exercise is fundamental to heart-healthy living, and it also happens to be a powerful source of stress relief.
Like the stress-heart health connection itself, the soothing effects of physical activity are grounded in hormones. Exercise is known to lower your levels of adrenaline and cortisol while stimulating production of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals.
Longer blocks of regular exercise are important for your long-term heart health, but in moments of high pressure you’ll feel some stress-relieving benefits from even a quick burst of movement.
Stay mindful — and take deep breaths
As you get moving, find ways to calm the mind. Many practices fall under the umbrella of mindfulness, the cultivation of present moment awareness and shift away from reactivity. Try meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking, or even bringing a bit more attention to your morning coffee or cup of tea.
With so many options for living more mindfully, focus on finding the habits and routines that work for you, and which fit easily into your day.
Deep breathing, a proven tactic for lowering stress hormone levels, is an accessible entry point. You may also benefit from the following resources:
- Moodfit, a free mood-tracking app
- Insight Timer, which offers a variety of free guided meditations
- What’s Up?, which uses a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to managing stress and negative thoughts
Maintain balance in your life
Healthy stress management isn’t just about using positive coping mechanisms in the moment. You may be able to stop stress before it happens — without getting too far into the future, of course.
Researchers have linked workplace stress, which many U.S. adults experience, to negative heart health. One Swedish study connected a poor experience of a manager to the risk of heart attack.
There are tangible ways to make the demands of a job or responsibilities at home feel more manageable (saying no when it’s necessary for starters). Stress management is personal, so consider what you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Take charge of your heart health
At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to manage your risk for heart health issues and follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends. We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.
Reach out any time through in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.