stressed woman at work
Anxiety (Panic Disorders, Phobias)
Heart Health

Emotional Stress and Heart Disease

Your emotions can affect your heart as well as your brain, experts say.

According to Srini Pillay, MD, writing in the Harvard Health Blog, two kinds of stress impact your brain. He says that jlpful stress (also known as eustress) can help you concentrate on what you need to do. But unhelpful stress (distress), on the other hand, can be so severe that it can lead to fatigue and heart disease.

Pillay says that the deprivation of oxygen (myocardial ischemia), which occurs in 30 to 50 percent of patients with cardiovascular disease, can be aggravated by emotional stress. Pillay adds that any type of heart disease may be affected by strong emotions like anger; that may lead to severe and even fatal irregular heart rhythms.  Additionally, if patients who have been newly diagnosed with heart disease become depressed, Pillay says, there’s an increased risk of a “harmful heart-related even” within a year.

Stress can also have a substantive effect on your heart, Pillay says, even if you don’t have cardiovascular disease. He cites a 1997 study of EKG changes in healthy physicians before and during the first 30 seconds of an emergency call. They saw changes that indicated oxygen deprivation and abnormal heart rhythms.

Additional studies have seen such changes in settings marked by stress, anxiety and depression. All of those, Pillay says, are brain-based condition. Even more surprisingly, in people with no prior heart disease, major depression doubles the risk of dying from heart-related causes.

Although this might sound like discouraging news, there’s a new emotion-based approach to heart health – cardiac psychology, Pillay Says.

Here are some tips from Pillay to get you started:

Get help. Don’t overlook any stress, anxiety or depression you may be feeling. Programs you might want to consider, either before or after a heart-related event, include educational training, stress management, biofeedback, counseling sessions and relaxation techniques. Pillay also says newer programs like acceptance therapy and expressive writing may also help.

Exercise. Pillay says that even older adults who are frail have improved their well-being by exercising for one hour three times a week. Various types of aerobic exercise, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, can reduce anxiety and depression.

(Editor’s note: Check with your doctor before beginning or changing any exercise program.)

For more information on health, click here to visit the Harvard Health Blog.