How Mental Stress Affects Your Heart

How Mental Stress Affects Your Heart


Constriction of tiny blood vessels, especially in women, can be deadly.

We know that physical exertion can put a stress on the heart. One measure of cardiovascular fitness is called a “stress test,” and if one overdoes it with the body, the heart can react badly. Case in point: An older gentleman I know had to make a visit to the ER after playing pickleball for two hours. But what about stress of the mental sort? That isn’t so good, either.

A new study suggests that mental stress can constrict blood vessels, especially in women, potentially raising the risk of a heart attack or heart disease. The research, which comes from the American Heart Association, was done on nearly 700 adults, average age 63, who had already been diagnosed with heart disease. The study built on previous research, which showed that mental stress can cause peripheral vessels, that is, the ones outside the brain and heart, to constrict. So, the researchers induced stressful situations to their subjects—by asking them to give a speech. If your heart starts pumping a bit faster just thinking about giving a presentation, you’re not alone; according to Forbes, 74 percent of Americans have fear and anxiety associated with making a presentation.

During the dreaded speech, participants’ blood pressure and heart rate were measured; images of their hearts were taken; and measurements recorded, finding out how constricted tiny arteries were that supply blood to the fingers. (If you thought you were stressed giving a toast at a wedding, try doing it with electrodes stuck to your chest and hands. Not. Stressful. At all!) Researchers found that blood supply was reduced to the heart during stress, especially among women, and that this was mostly due to a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, which made the heart work harder. Basically, the heart was pumping against an increased resistance.

Calming down mentally, therefore, may very well protect the heart. “The psychosocial sphere doesn’t receive a lot of attention during current clinical practice, but it is very important to advise both women and men with heart disease about interventions to reduce stress, and to refer them to other professionals if they need help with depression or anxiety,” wrote the study’s lead author, Viola Vaccarino, M.D., Ph.D. She is a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. Vaccarino writes that there are ways to protect the heart from mental stress, including relaxation techniques and physical exercise.

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