Seventy-five percent of Americans report they’re exposed to moderate or high levels of it. We encounter it nearly everywhere: in the office, at home, in traffic—even (maybe especially?) at school drop-off. And it can be toxic.
Skyrocketing stress levels seem like a symptom of modern living. But the body’s stress response is actually quite old, rooted in a time when stressors tended to be life-threatening. Today, our stressors tend to be less serious. (No matter how harrowing your commute feels, you’re probably not spotting a saber-toothed tiger on the B train.) But the stress response, once triggered, is much the same.
And what a response it is. During a stressful event, an incredible sequence of hormonal, cardiovascular and other physiological changes occurs. Heart rate increases (you know that thudding sensation in your chest). Blood pressure elevates and energy stores are made available (the classic “fight or flight” mode). In the short term, this can be a good thing: it can help you nail that interview or deliver an extra compelling presentation. And—just like in ancient times—it can even ensure your survival when you’re faced with a serious threat.
But what happens if stressors keep popping up and those changes happen in the body over and over?
Stress that lasts for prolonged periods (aka chronic stress) can lead to diabetes, major depression and low immune function. And your heart can really pay the price.
How your heart is affected depends on many factors, including your sex. In one study, men showed more changes in blood pressure and heart rate in response to stress, while women exhibited decreased blood flow to the heart and an increase in the beginnings of blood clot formation.
Other research shows ongoing strife and failure to resolve negative emotions may lead to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and even accelerate atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of arteries). And that’s just the beginning.
What stress can do to your heart
Increased blood pressure & higher risk of stroke
When the heart is exposed to elevated stress hormones like epinephrine for long periods, damage to the arteries and blood vessels can occur, along with increases in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
In one study of civil servants, those who believed stress impacted their health “a lot or extremely” had double the risk of heart attack compared to those who believed it didn’t.
Emotionally triggered cardiac events
Emotional triggers have been shown to precipitate cardiac events. The underlying source of stress can vary.
The risk of experiencing cardiovascular incidents may increase in the months following the death of a spouse.
Chronic work-related stresses like high demands or low salary can pose a two- to three-fold higher risk of cardiac events.
There is a higher rate of cardiovascular events in the two hours following angry outbursts.
Broken heart syndrome
A broken heart isn’t just a figure of speech. The intense grief or anger experienced by those suffering from heartbreak can cause a release of stress hormones that stuns the heart and impedes blood flow to the body, leading to “broken heart syndrome.” The hallmark of this condition is the heart assuming a bulging, balloon-like shape, and it can cause symptoms similar to a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is temporary with no evidence of blocked coronary arteries. A quick and full recovery usually follows.
What you can do about your stress
You can put the brakes on stress by tapping into your body’s relaxation response. Here’s how.
Try meditation, yoga, tai chi or breathing exercises. Mindfulness allows you to experience calmness, focus, clarity and general mental well-being.
Do some form of daily exercise. This releases mood-elevating endorphins and helps to “work off steam” when you’re feeling agitated or angry.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. The higher levels of vitamin C in citrus fruits and leafy greens help lower blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone.
Avoid heart-harming behaviors like smoking, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption.
Build a strong network of family and friends. Discussing problems and expressing feelings reduces conflict and the stress associated with it.
Make time for enjoyable activities daily. A lower perceived level of life enjoyment has been linked with higher risks of cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality, particularly in men.
Botanical medicines categorized as “adaptogens” have been shown to improve the body’s response to and recovery from stress.
Eleuthero is one such adaptogen, with evidence pointing to its ability to help the body accommodate adverse physical conditions and improve mental performance.
Ashwagandha is a favorite adaptogen from the Ayurvedic tradition. In preliminary research, it has shown anti-stress effects.
Rhodiola rosea may improve physical performance and mitigate mental fatigue. Win-win.