Stress and Your Heart

This may come as a surprise: the word “stress” as we know it is relatively new. Initially used by physicists to refer to a force that causes strain on a physical body, “stress” was taken up by physiologists and biologists only in the 1920s. The basic concept is that a stressor—that which causes the stress—acts upon something that is in relative equilibrium, and throws that equilibrium off.

An example from physics: Your living room window rests in its panes in relative equilibrium. When the neighbor boy throws an errant frisbee, the frisbee becomes the stressor that breaks the window. When the window breaks, it returns to a state of equilibrium. It is no longer very good at keeping the cold air out, but it’s terrific at letting the cold air in!

The Cascade of Stress

If we were like windows, the errant frisbee would shatter us and we would return to a state of equilibrium - all shards and cold air. Thankfully, we are far more complex than a window.

The stressor that is strong enough to break—or to pressure—our emotional windows creates a cascade not just of emotional problems, but of decidedly physical ones, too. When “stressed,” the body, unlike the window, seeks to relieve itself of the stress. The action most likely begins in the brain. A variety of brain structures get to work, sending messages all over the body that something is wrong. These messages can be sent, and can act upon, all sorts of bodily processes, from the quick metabolism of sugar to the rapid release of hormones.1

How the Stress Gets to Your Heart

Your heart is inevitably effected when your body begins responding to stress. In an emergency stress situation, your heart is zapped by adrenaline, which prepares your body to fight or flee. This zap can cause a rapid heart rate and can be accompanied by an increase of blood pressure, both of which can lead to hypertension and a thinning of your arterial walls.2

Your Heart and Chronic Stress

The emergency situation described above is fairly easy to understand. But what if your stressor is not so clear as a frisbee against glass, but rather is a constant, day-in day-out pressure on your emotional faculties due to your job, your lack of job, or those around you, from colleagues to loved ones? This kind of stress is called “chronic” and its effects are most likely even worse than momentary emergencies.

In a momentary emergency, the heart receives its adrenaline zap and then calms itself when the problem has been solved. When stress is chronic, however, your heart may experience a more subtle zap—let’s call it a repeating strum—which can make it have to work much harder to do its job. Blood pressure also can steadily rise in an attempt to fight the stressor. Eventually, this constant thrum and elevation of blood pressure can severely weaken the cardiovascular system.

A partial list of the toll stress takes on the heart includes3:

  • raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • arterial damage, including the development of coronary artery disease
  • irregular heart rhythms

It should be noted that all of the above problems can in turn cause other problems, so what may start out as a nagging worry about finances can end up as a full-blown disease.

How To Deal with Stress

One of the biggest health questions of modern life is how to deal with stress. Before listing all the things you already know, it’s important to return to this concept of “stressors.” In the example above, the frisbee is the stressor against the glass. For chronic stress, however, the stressor is not just the job or the people surrounding us, the stressor is how we respond to these stimuli. A common strategy to deal with stress is simple Avoidance. We like to think if we just keep on keeping on, the problem will take care of itself.

Just as dangerous—or maybe even more so—is the Masking strategy. Some of us try to mask the stress through alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and food. While these stimulants and depressants can certainly have a physical effect, their primary effect on the stressed body is to trick the body into thinking it doesn’t have a problem. These tricks can work in the short term, but as anyone with a hangover has ever known, the underlying problem did not go away when the six-pack did.

So, how to deal with stress and improve your heart’s ability to function in a state of healthy equilibrium? Well, this will come as no surprise: eat right, maintain healthy and supportive relationships, and avoid masking your stress with harmful substances. This, of course, is obvious and applies to everyone. But each one of us is prey to stressors that are unique to us individually. While you do all the right things for your health, take a good hard look and ask yourself what stressors have your heart in their sights. If you eliminate the stressors, you eliminate the stress.

References

  1. Gozhenko AI et al. Pathology: Medical student’s library. Radom University, p. 272. ISBN 978-83-61047-18-6.
  2. American Heart Association. Stress and Heart Health. Updated June 13, 2014.
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Stress and Heart Disease. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17514-stress--heart-disease. Accessed April 24, 2015.
  4. Park, Alice. Fat-Bellied Monkeys Suggest Why Stress Sucks. Time Magazine. August 8, 2009. 

This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice.  Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition.  Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.