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We have all been there—palms sweating, heart pounding, and the feeling of your blood pressure rising. You are stressed, and your body is reacting to it. We all have those stressful life moments to navigate, but if you are living in a constant state of stress, this can have serious, long-term consequences for your heart health.

While you can’t always prevent stressful situations, you can control how you respond to and deal with stress. Understanding how stress affects your heart health and the steps you can take to mitigate those effects will help you to stress less and improve your heart health.

How Stress Affects Heart Health

Those suffering from chronic stress are more likely to have high blood pressure, develop heart disease, and suffer a heart attack. Chronic stress also increases the likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity, and sleep difficulties—all of which can contribute to heart disease. That is because your body’s response to stress not only affects your cardiovascular system but also the nervous system and the endocrine system responsible for metabolism and hormonal balance.

If you are constantly stressed, that stress is placing a physical strain on your heart in several ways:

Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the “fight or flight” response by sending signals to the adrenal glands to pump the hormone epinephrine (or adrenaline) into the bloodstream. This burst of adrenaline causes your pulse and blood pressure to go up and the heart to beat faster, pumping blood to your vital organs and muscles, so your body can be ready to “fight or flight.” But in most modern stressful situations, your body does not need to physically fight or flee. This constant stress response can strain the cardiovascular system, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, damaging blood vessel walls and leading to heart disease.

Hormonal Changes

Adrenaline is a stress hormone, and it is balanced by another stress hormone, cortisol. Among its many functions, cortisol regulates how your body uses fats and carbohydrates for energy by regulating blood sugar levels. When the stress response is triggered, a burst of cortisol follows that burst of adrenaline, triggering a release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats into the bloodstream, nutrients that supply energy to your body so it can “flight or fight.” The overstimulation of cortisol due to chronic stress can alter blood sugar levels and your metabolism, contributing to the development of heart disease over time. These hormonal changes, particularly the over-release of cortisol, can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdomen. Abdominal fat is a known risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.


Cortisol can help suppress inflammation in your body. In fact, the corticosteroids in cortisone shots are essentially synthetic cortisol. However, too much cortisol in your body (like from chronic stress) can cause inflammation, as your body becomes accustomed to the high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Inflammation can lead to atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits (also known as plaque) on the artery wall. Often referred to as “hardening of the arteries,” this can narrow the flow of blood pumped from the heart.

Blood Clots

If stress is increasing inflammation and atherosclerosis in your body, then it is also increasing your likelihood for blood clots. When the plaque that’s built up on the artery wall breaks apart, it can congeal and form blood clots that can block the artery, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Sleep Disruptions

If you are stressed, you are probably not sleeping well. Your sleep cycle is the time for your body to reboot and repair, from maintaining healthy hormonal balance to supporting healthy brain function to healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels. Adults need seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Not getting enough quality sleep can lead to a host of health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity—all of which can raise the risk for developing heart disease.

Mental Health Issues

Chronic stress can contribute to mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. These conditions are associated with higher rates of heart disease. Additionally, people under stress may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, overeating, binge drinking alcohol, or avoiding exercise. All these can increase your risk for developing heart disease.

How to Manage Your Stress Response

You can control how you react to stress and even re-program your body’s stress response. When stress strikes, don’t let it sweep you away. Instead, look to these de-stressing methods to keep your mental, emotional, and physical responses in check:

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing can counter the “flight or fight” response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals to the brain that you are safe. This can regulate your physical reactions—slowing the heartbeat, stabilizing or evening lowering blood pressure, and reducing muscle tension. When you find yourself stressed, anxious, and on the verge of hyperventilating, use deep breathing. Shift your mental focus away from the stressful situation and onto something pleasing while taking deep breaths, slowly lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.


Meditation can help you to calm your mind and body by refocusing your attention onto a positive word, object, or your breathing. Various studies have highlighted the benefits of meditation, including lowering blood pressure and improving insomnia, depression and anxiety, with some research suggesting that regular meditation practice can physically alter the brain and its stress responses.

There are different forms of meditation, from Transcendental Zen meditation that leads you to quietly focus inward to “moving meditation” like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. These mind-body practices blend specific postures and controlled movements with mental focus and breathing techniques for a holistic meditation experience that induces relaxation and relieves stress.

Signing up for a yoga, tai chi, or other meditation class can give you regularly dedicated meditation time away from a stressful environment, like your workplace. If that’s not an option, you can still work mediation into your day by getting into a comfortable position in a quiet location with few distractions for meditative breathing.


With roots in meditation practices, mindfulness is being fully aware of and present in the current moment and accepting your body’s sensations and feelings without judgment. In following the principles of being present, aware, observant, and accepting, mindfulness helps you to act with intention—purposefully engaging with a stressful situation so you are not overwhelmed or overly reactive.

Mindfulness is used in clinical therapies and programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which builds on the success of mindfulness for stress management to help treat patients with health conditions like depression, anxiety, chronic pain, immune disorders, and high blood pressure. While MBSR is an eight-week program available to anyone, you can start integrating mindfulness into your everyday activities in simple ways:

Mindful Communication: Stressful situations often stem from the actions or words of others—or our reactions to them. Mindful communication emphasizes active listening, empathy, understanding, and non-judgmental awareness in your interactions with others.

Mindful Meditation: Take mindfulness back to its meditation roots by sitting quietly and focusing on your breath and its natural rhythm, bodily sensations, or a particular thought or mantra.

Mindful Eating: Stress eating can lead you to mindlessly inhale unhealthy food. Instead, be mindful of what you’re eating by being fully present with each bite, consuming your food slowly to focus on the taste, texture, and sensory experience of eating.

Mindful Walking: Remove yourself physically and mentally from a stressful situation by going for a mindful walk. Pay attention to your movements and sensations in the body as you walk slowly and intentionally.

Exercise and Physical Activity

Besides helping you maintain a healthy weight, your workout can help you to re-balance and blow off steam. This does not have to be intensive exercise. A mid-day mindful walk can help you to refocus, calm, and remove yourself from the stressful situation. Physical activity combined with other healthy lifestyle choices—eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption—can mitigate the effects of stress and improve your overall heart health.

Build a Support System

People with strong social ties and close relationships tend to live longer and healthier, as these positive connections combat loneliness and social isolation. In fact, studies have found that social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks, such as high blood pressure and weight gain.

When it comes to dealing with stress, having a strong social support system to lean on—friends, family, and even professionals—can provide support to alleviate your stress and accountability in how you respond to stress. Seeking professional help through therapy and counseling can help you address the underlying causes of chronic stress, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and potentially reduce its impact on your heart health.

Stress can significantly impact heart health, but when you understand its effects and thoughtfully manage your stress response, you can live your heart healthiest life.

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