Stress and Heart Disease

Upset stomach, trouble sleeping, and feelings of anxiety are all signs of stress. Stress is the way you react physically, mentally, and emotionally to the demands of everyday life.

Evidence suggests a relationship between the risk of cardiovascular disease and environmental and psychosocial factors. These could include job-related issues (meeting deadlines) and personality traits (being critical of others and yourself.) However, more research is needed to find out exactly how stress influences the risk for heart disease.

Chronic Stress

A small amount of stress, known as positive or acute stress, is good for everyone. It challenges and motivates us to do better. When faced with stressful situations, our body responds in many ways, including faster heart rate and heightened alertness, higher blood pressure, tightening of the muscles, sweating, and dilated pupils.

But high levels of ongoing stress, known as chronic stress, can lead to health problems. Chronic stress is the result of many instances of acute stress in which the body doesn't fully recover.

Effects of chronic stress

Tension is one early warning sign of chronic stress. Tension can be both physical (tight muscles) and mental (unable to concentrate). Although tension might be the first symptom of chronic stress that you see, other effects of stress on the body can go unnoticed.

  • Chronic stress can cause higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels; both are risk factors for heart disease.
  • The way people respond to stressful situations, such as smoking, eating poorly, or drinking, can cause or increase health risks. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Over time, chronic stress can weaken your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick.

Ways to Manage Stress

Learning how to manage stress is the best way to lower your chances of developing stress-related illness. Here are some positive things you can do to lower stress:

  • Talk with someone about your concerns.
  • Join a support or community group.
  • Know your limits. Learn to say no.
  • Be physically active.
  • Learn to accept things you can't change.
  • Learn and practice relaxation skills, such as breathing exercises and aerobic exercise.

By improving the way you respond to stressful situations, you can relieve and prevent stress symptoms and learn to cope with everyday frustrations. Managing stress is as important to your overall health as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking.

For more information on stress management, contact the Resource Line. They can provide printed materials on coping with stress, and information on stress-management classes offered at Kaiser Permanente and in the community.

Clinical review by Art Resnick, MD
Kaiser Permanente
Reviewed 03/01/2014