Stress and Heart Disease


Illustration of heart and cardiac rhythm To what degree does stress impact your heart – and how?

Stress is a normal part of life. Our bodies are actually designed to protect against stress. However, chronic stress can have the opposite effect.

How Stress Harms the Heart

Woman clutching chest When we experience stress, our bodies release cortisol, our primary stress hormone. Cortisol is essential to the body, playing a large role in regulating things like blood pressure and immune function. It naturally peaks in the morning, then drops gradually, falling to its lowest levels at night. However, ongoing stress can cause cortisol to spike throughout the day.

Studies suggest that the high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure – all common risk factors for heart disease. Moreover, this stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries.

Even minor stress can trigger heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle. This is a condition in which the heart doesn't get enough blood or oxygen. And, long-term stress can affect how the blood clots. This makes the blood stickier and increases the risk of stroke. 

Other Stress-Related Behaviors That Affect Heart Health

In addition to our physiological response, many people are sensitive to stress. This can result in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as:

  • Smoking or vaping
  • Excess alcohol
  • Emotional eating
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Moving less and opting for TV, etc.
  • Taking more relief-oriented medicine than prescribed
  • Using illegal drugs or prescription drugs not prescribed to you

Ironically, these same coping mechanisms can increase feelings of anxiety, stress levels, and blood pressure.

But don’t lose heart. You can decrease the effect of stress on your body! Here’s how.

Exercise Routinely

Woman lifting hand weights Exercise is a powerful antidote to the harmful effects of stress. People who exercise have a reduced physical response to stress. Their blood pressure and heart rates don't go up as high as compared to people under stress who don’t exercise. Moderate-intensity movement (like walking) also helps improve cardiovascular health by controlling weight, improving cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure.

Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of depression, another risk factor for heart disease.

For heart health, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (about 30 - 40 minutes, 4 - 5 days a week). Choose something you can look forward to, like brisk walking, vinyasa yoga, dance aerobics, swimming, or a fun winter sport. Grab a friend or make a playlist of music that keeps you motivated.

Build a Strong Support System

Ideas for Meeting New People

  • Platforms like
  • Church
  • Volunteering
  • A local senior center
  • Community events

Research suggests that having a strong support network can reduce your stress level and your risk of heart disease. This can mean spending time with family, making more plans with friends, or joining a group focused on shared interests.

If you already have heart disease, this same network can help reduce your risk for heart attack. Having at least one person you can rely on can help you find stress relief and provide comfort.

A strong support system helps you take better care of yourself, too. Research shows that a lack of social support increases the chance of engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, eating a high-fat diet, and drinking too much alcohol.

Find Healthy Stress Strategies

Reacting to stress is perfectly normal. In fact, we’re biologically hardwired to do so. The key to beating stress is having an arsenal of healthy stress strategies that work. How you choose to cope with your stress is very personal – and it could vary depending on the situation. Use our free Resilience Guide to identify which stress-busting activities work best for you. Incorporate these stress strategies as much as possible – even if you need to use a phone or sticky note reminder – until they become a habit.

Reduce Work Stress

Studies show having a demanding job that offers you few opportunities to make decisions or provides little reward can increase your risk for heart disease. Stress at work becomes even more of a problem when you don't have a strong support system or you have long-term anxiety.

Sign on desk reading "Set Boundaries" If you can't find a different position within your company, do what you can to advocate for yourself. Some ideas include:

  • Use breaks to recharge, focusing on relaxation or movement rather than screen time
  • Meditate to ground yourself before and after your workday or a challenging project
  • Ask if your employer offers an employee assistance program (EAP)
  • Record your stressors in a journal to identify patterns, like what bothers you most and how you typically respond so you can be more proactive
  • Set limits on the amount of non-priority work you tackle
  • Research new employment opportunities

Tell Your Primary Care Provider

Depression and anxiety can increase your risk of dying from heart disease if you already have it. Research suggests that long-term anxiety or emotional stress can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death.

If you think you're at an increased risk for heart disease because of stress in your life, talk with your primary provider at your next scheduled annual wellness check-up.

"It is important for your provider to understand how stress is affecting your day to day life, shares Brian McComb, DO, Chief Medical Officer for Munson Healthcare’s South Region. “While your provider may not be able to change your life situation, they can certainly help cater the right treatment plan to your specific needs. There are a number of very effective medications (along with lifestyle changes) that can make a big difference."

Need a Primary Care Provider?

A primary care provider is the perfect place to start when you need non-emergency care – and not just when you're sick. Routine preventative care, including an annual wellness visit, can help you achieve optimal physical and emotional health. Are you looking for a new primary care provider? Use our Find-A-Doctor tool at or call our Ask-A-Nurse line at 231-935-0951