A racing heartbeat, a pit in your stomach, a pounding in your ears—all of these are familiar symptoms of increased heart rate caused by a moment of extreme mental stress. Most people have probably experienced this, because mental stress is a normal part of life. However, long-term mental stress is not normal and can actually do real damage to your heart over a long period of time.
A demanding job, a problematic relationship, depression, anxiety or the death of a loved one can cause mental stress, to name just a few examples. Mental stress negatively affects your health because of the way your body responds to it, and how you cope with it.
Some people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms including overeating, smoking, drinking excessively, using illicit drugs or behaving recklessly. All these coping mechanisms can lead to significant physiological changes in our bodies. These changes include increasing cortisol levels in the blood that potentially lead to an increase in glucose levels, insulin resistance, weight gain, obesity, increased cholesterol or decreased ability to digest foods. These changes lead to heartburn, elevated heart rate, high blood pressure and even the development or worsening of Type 2 diabetes and heart and vascular disease.
These consequences of poor coping mechanisms are worsened by the body’s natural response to stress. Under stress, the body produces more fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline, which forces the heart to work overtime to keep you alert. Consistently working overtime can weaken the heart and its ability to efficiently, effectively circulate blood in the body. Reduced blood circulation can lead to heart attack, stroke or kidney failure.
In fact, there is a condition called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or “broken heart syndrome,” which causes symptoms similar to a heart attack (e.g., chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, sweating and fainting). This condition is frequently seen in women who have endured extreme emotional stress. In a patient with this condition, even if the arteries are not significantly blocked, an electrocardiogram test would show damage as if the patient is having a heart attack. This condition can be reversed with stress management and appropriate heart failure medications. Not only are women more likely to have “broken heart syndrome,” but stress actually affects men and women differently under the age of 55. In this age range, a woman exposed to emotional distress can have up to three times the reduction in heart artery blood flow than men in the same age range.
It is important to recognize the damage that long-term mental stress can cause. Recognizing and accepting stress, including anxiety and depression, is the first step on the path to managing it and retaking control of your physical and mental health. Exercise can help by releasing good hormones that help keep arteries from developing fatty deposits and calcium in the walls and also reduce artery spasms. A good exercise regimen reduces heart rate and blood pressure over time, thus decreasing the risk for heart attack, kidney failure and strokes.
Talking to a therapist, eating a healthy diet and making time for relaxation or meditation are powerful tools to combat long-term stress. If the symptoms from stress are all too familiar to you, make an appointment with your primary care provider to discuss your symptoms and circumstances. If your physician identifies heart problems caused by stress or other underlying conditions, you may benefit from a consultation with a cardiologist.