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Can Stress Cause Heart Disease?

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

As humans, we all stress and worry. We stress about our family, our job, our financial situations. Moderate stress is normal, but sometimes we get so overwhelmed it can feel like we are on the verge of a heart attack.

Is this possible? Well, technically, yes. For more than 100 years, it has been thought that stress plays a role in heart disease and multiple studies today prove this. That fact alone makes it crucial to understand the link between stress and heart disease and know how to manage stress effectively.

How can stress cause heart disease?
“Chronic stress leads to a 40%-60% increase in cardiovascular disease,” said Cardiologist Ray Georgeson, a physician at Piedmont HealthCare.

Stress can lead to a cascade of events in our hearts and body. A stressful situation can cause heightened central nervous system activity, which causes an increase in adrenaline and, ultimately, a high heart rate and blood pressure.

Additionally, stress can cause a plaque rupture, which occurs when cholesterol builds up on the artery wall. According to Georgeson, a small fibrous cap inside the artery keeps the cholesterol and plaque from entering the bloodstream. However, this cap weakens and ruptures after time, causing all the plaque to enter the artery, leading to a blood clot. This blood clot can then lead to a heart attack. Emotional stress, natural disasters, and even intense sporting events can cause stress and trigger plaque rupture.

Which heart diseases can stress cause?
According to Georgeson, stress can cause specific cardiac events such as ischemia, arrhythmias, and stress cardiomyopathy.

Ischemia occurs when the artery does not get enough blood to the heart muscle. Symptoms of ischemia include chest pain, shortness of breath with activity, fatigue, and decreased energy. This can ultimately lead to a heart attack.

Stress can also cause an arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat. For example, after 9/11, an extremely stressful event, doctors saw a stark increase in people with arrhythmias.

Stress cardiomyopathy, commonly called “broken heart syndrome,” causes rapid heart muscle weakening. The left ventricle of the heart begins to weaken, change shape, and balloon out. Symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy mimic heart attack symptoms, including shortness of breath and chest pain. The majority of stress cardiomyopathy cases occur in women. According to Georgeson, emotional stress causes 47% of stress cardiomyopathy cases, while physical stress causes 42%.

How can I tell if I am stressed?
If you are experiencing chronic stress, you may overeat, drink alcohol too much or too often, smoke, overwork, procrastinate, have trouble sleeping, or try to do too much and get frustrated. Georgeson stated that stress does not equal anxiety. If you are exceptionally anxious, Georgeson recommends seeing your doctor.

How can I reduce my stress?

  • Keep active and moving.
  • Reach out to family, friends, or your doctor.
  • Laugh out loud.
  • Make sleep a priority.
  • Take time for yourself.
  • Try breathing exercises as a way to relax.
  • Foster positive feelings and thoughts.
  • Consider stress management classes.

To learn more, visit the Iredell Health System YouTube channel to view a recent presentation by Georgeson on stress and heart disease.

Pictured: Dr. Ray Georgeson.