The heart is intricately connected to the stress response. Exposure to chronic stressors can cause common chronic health problems like heart disease, depression, anxiety, and more. Heart disease is still the number one cause of death worldwide, and while there are many factors, stress is a huge component that often gets ignored. There are many ways to manage stress, but they are not typically discussed in a routine doctor visit. There’s a clear disconnect, though, as 60% to 80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues.
How Does Stress Affect the Heart?
The heart is a fist-size organ that pumps oxygenated blood to the body. Two major bodily systems impact heart function: the nervous system and the endocrine system.
Your nervous system is responsible for sending signals to the heart to slow down or speed up. When you’re calm and relaxed, your heart rate slows. When you’re excited or stressed, your heart rate quickens.
Your endocrine system works in conjunction with your nervous system, releasing hormones that dictate not just heart function but the function of other vital organs. During stressful situations, your body increases production of cortisol. This hormone prepares your body to act – your pupils dilate; blood rushes to your extremities; your senses are heightened; and your heart rate rapidly increases, increasing your blood pressure. In acutely stressful events, this cortisol production can help keep you safe, but prolonged exposure to cortisol will negatively impact your heart health.
While there are genetic components to consider, practicing stress management is crucial to avoid health complications, especially if you have a genetic risk.
Three Ways to Manage Stress and Protect the Heart
Find a healthy balance with food.
There are many diets – often with conflicting information or directions – that make it seem like there’s only one diet for optimizing heart health. The best diet for you will depend on your unique situation, your health concerns, and your dietary requirements and preferences – what we at IIN call bio-individuality. The only thing experts can agree on is that a healthy, balanced diet can decrease your chances of developing heart disease later in life.
Research even shows that changing diets too often can negatively affect your heart health. Finding a healthy balance with food can start in a few ways, including starting a “food-mood journal,” where you write down not only what foods you’re eating but also how they make you feel. This practice can often shed light on what foods do and don’t work for you. Taking this a step further and working with a Health Coach can support with tapping into your emotional health needs and finding what works best for you on your wellness journey.
Seek emotional health support and practice mindfulness.
Keeping a healthy diet and decreasing harmful activities that stress the heart, like smoking, don’t simply happy overnight – they require habits to be made and kept over time. This is where addressing emotional health comes in. When the emotional component of your health is also prioritized, healthier lifestyle habits are easier to begin and maintain. Some evidence suggests that supporting and bringing more awareness to mental health disorders can decrease the burden of heart disease in the United States.
Emotional health support could come from a trusted therapist, coach, or peer. Other therapeutic modalities to help reduce stress include EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), neurofeedback, and many more. We don't have to get through life alone, and finding a trusted friend or professional can make all the difference.
Mindfulness can involve anything from practicing yoga and meditation to walking in nature and much more. There’s extensive research that practicing mindfulness in some form can decrease stress and even improve heart health.
Resolve sleep concerns.
Sleeping less than seven hours a night frequently can increase your risk of heart attack, asthma, and depression. Lack of sleep can increase the stress response by leaving you in a “fight or flight” state for longer, putting further strain on the heart. Some ways to help manage sleep issues are to start a wind-down routine away from screens, track your sleep, and practice stress management through mindfulness, meditations, or even journaling.
The Bottom Line
Although stress is a major factor and concern regarding heart health, many people may not know of the potential risks. The health of your heart can ripple out to impact your full-body health, and managing stress is foundational to keeping a healthy body and mind.