Stress has enormous implications for your health. From an evolutionary perspective, the stress response is a lifesaving biological function that enables you to instinctively square off against an assailant, run away from a predator or take down a prey.
However, those of us living in the modern world are now activating this same biological reaction in response to activities and events that have no life-threatening implications whatsoever, from speaking in public to filling out tax forms and sitting in traffic jams.
The sheer number of stress-inducing situations facing us on a daily basis can actually make it difficult to turn the stress response off, and marinating in corrosive stress hormones around the clock can have very serious consequences for your health.
Stubborn fat accumulation, high blood pressure and heart attack are just a few of the many health consequences associated with chronic stress. Acute stress can also have potentially lethal consequences.
I recently wrote about broken heart syndrome — a condition prefaced by acute and severe stress or shock, such as the unexpected death of a loved one.
High-Stress Lifestyle Raises Your Risk of Heart Attack
There’s no shortage of evidence showing that stress impacts your health. And, since your heart and mind are so closely interlinked, your mental state can have a particularly significant influence on your heart health.
According to recent research, stress increases your risk of heart attack and stroke by causing overactivity in your amygdala.1,2,3 Known as your brain’s fear center, this almond-shaped brain region, located in your temporal lobe, is activated in response to both real and perceived threats.
Other recent research suggests the amygdala is also involved in the processing of other emotions, including positive ones, as well as the processing of emotional memories of all kinds.
Still, its involvement in fear and threat detection is well-established, and one of its most basic jobs is to keep you safe by biochemically preparing you to fight or flee as needed.
In this study, inflammation levels as well as brain and bone marrow activity of 293 participants were measured. All of the participants were over the age of 30, and none had a diagnosed heart problem.
By the end of the observation period, which lasted between two and five years, 22 participants had experienced a serious cardiac event such as heart attack, stroke or angina (chest pain).
Based on brain scans, the researchers were able to conclude that those with higher activity in the amygdala were at an elevated risk of a cardiac event. As it turns out, there appears to be a significant correlation between amygdala activity and arterial inflammation (which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke).
This was confirmed in another much smaller sub-study involving those with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).4,5 Here, levels of C-reactive protein were also measured, showing that those reporting the highest stress levels also had the highest amygdala activity and higher levels of inflammatory markers.
Overactive Fear Response Is a Recipe for Heart Attack and Stroke
In short, people who are highly stressed have higher activity in the amygdala. This in turn triggers inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease. These findings are not concrete proof of causation, however, and need to be validated through further research.
That said, previous studies have shown that activation of the amygdala can trigger arterial inflammation by triggering immune cell production in the bone marrow. As reported by The Huffington Post:6
“A healthy amygdala can help to protect the brain against stress, while an amygdala that’s hyper-excitable as a result of chronic stress or other factors can amplify the stress response.
The new study shows, for the first time, how an overactive amygdala can cause heart attack and stroke. When stress triggers the amygdala, it activates bone marrow and inflammation of the arteries to create the conditions for a heart attack.
‘Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease,’ Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a Harvard cardiologist and the study’s lead author, said … ‘This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being.'”
Ilze Bot, Ph.D., a Dutch biopharmaceutical researcher who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, added:7
“In the past decade, more and more individuals experience psychosocial stress on a daily basis. Heavy workloads, job insecurity or living in poverty are circumstances that can result in chronically increased stress
These clinical data establish a connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, thus identifying chronic stress as a true risk factor for acute cardiovascular syndromes, which could, given the increasing number of individuals with chronic stress, be included in risk assessments of cardiovascular disease in daily clinical practice.”
Other Ways Stress Can Trigger a Heart Attack
Stress can also promote or trigger a heart attack in other ways. For example, studies8 have shown that as your stress level rises, so do your level of disease-promoting white blood cells, and this is yet another way by which stress can lead to atherosclerosis, plaque rupture and myocardial infarction.
During moments of high stress your body also releases norepinephrine, which researchers claim9 can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, thereby triggering a heart attack.
A sudden release of large amounts of stress hormones and rapid elevations in blood pressure may even trigger a heart attack or stroke even if you don’t have a heart problem. In the case of broken heart syndrome, the symptoms of a heart attack occur even though there’s no actual damage to the heart at all.
According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), broken heart syndrome is a “temporary condition where your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned.” The left ventricle (your heart’s largest chamber) also changes shape, which adds to the temporary dysfunction.
This sudden weakness of the heart is thought to be due to the sudden release of large quantities of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This is what is believed happened to Debbie Reynolds.
Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate, and it’s been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.
While most will successfully recover, in some, the change of shape of the left ventricle can trigger a fatal heart attack. Having a history of neurological problems, such as seizure disorders, and/or a history of mental health problems is thought to raise your risk.10 On the upside, while the condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, it’s usually a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.
Recognizing the Signs of Stress
Many have gotten so used to being wound up into a stress-knot, they don’t even realize the position they’re in. So, the first step is to recognize that you’re stressed, and then take steps to address it. Common signs and symptoms of stress include:11
|Sleeping poorly, trouble falling asleep and excessive tiredness||Binge drinking|
|Lack of appetite or overeating||Having a “short fuse”/being quick to anger or losing your temper|
|Feeling overwhelmed, sad or irritable; frequent crying or quick to tears||Headaches and/or general aches and pain response.|