Chronic Stress Can Cause Physical Symptoms, Heart Disease Risk

Why It Matters:
  • Long-term stress may contribute to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease risks.
  • Stress can zap energy, causing a decline in productivity at work and home.
  • Managing stress through physical activity, a good sleep routine, and other healthy habits helps create a healthier overall lifestyle.

American Heart Association tkc.profilePicture Written by: American Heart Association | Transamerica
Nov. 05, 2019

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Surprisingly, there are times when stress can be useful. When stress is short-lived, it can help with performance in meeting a major deadline, interviewing for a new job, or achieving another goal. Stress and its impact on the body can also be lifesaving in the face of danger.1 But constant stress can affect overall well-being and may even impact heart health.

“Long-term stress induced by work troubles, financial difficulties, or family discord is a different story,” said Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital. He also is professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal.

“Irritability, anxiety, depression, rumination, and insomnia, or waking up in the middle of the night with anguish are some of the health effects that can result from chronic stress,” he said.

Stress and heart health

Ongoing stress not only takes an emotional and psychological toll, it can produce physical symptoms. Those may include headaches, an upset stomach, tense and aching muscles, insomnia, and low energy.2

Heart disease is another potential stress-related problem. Stress may lead to high blood pressure, which can pose a risk for heart attack and stroke. Stress also may contribute to such cardiovascular disease risks as smoking, overeating, and lack of physical activity.3

“Chronic stress has been shown to be associated with increased cardiovascular events,” Schiffrin said. He pointed to recent research that used images of part of the brain involved with fear and stress and found links between stress and cardiovascular disease episodes.4 Brain activity was studied along with bone marrow activity and artery inflammation.

“These findings illustrate mechanisms through which emotional stressors can lead to cardiovascular disease in human beings,” Schiffrin said.

Financial cost of stress

Constant stress can impact creativity and productivity.5 For many people, the workplace is a source of stress. Approximately two in three employees reported work as a significant source of stress, according to the report “Resilience in the Workplace” by the American Heart Association. Job stress can stem from long hours, physical strain, high demand, or job insecurity.6

Annual expenditures on work-related stress has been estimated at $190 billion, while the cost of poor mental health, including depression and anxiety, has been pegged at $211 billion annually. The estimates encompass lost productivity and work absenteeism.7

Strategies for coping

“To minimize continual stress, set priorities for what is most important to you and aim for a life-work balance,” Schiffrin said. Make time for friends, family, and laughter, and establish stress-reducing health habits.

Ease stress and improve your mood through physical activity. Regular exercise helps to lower blood pressure and combat other cardiovascular disease risk factors.8 Mindful meditation and deep breathing can help manage stress. Consider yoga for reducing stress and getting fit. It combines movement, controlled breathing, and relaxation.

Sleep and stress are interconnected. Stress can affect sleep, and lack of sleep can, in turn, lead to more stress.9 “Seven to eight hours of sleep per night is ideal,” Schiffrin said. “Better sleep hygiene is critical in management of stress and promotion of heart health.”

Schiffrin recommends sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet room; getting adequate physical activity, but not close to bedtime; and avoiding eating or drinking in the hours before bedtime, especially alcohol and foods high in fat or sugar.

Creating a positive lifestyle

“Attempting to see a ‘silver lining’ and adopting a positive attitude toward life can help reduce stress,” Schiffrin said. “For ongoing stress or symptoms of depression, talk with a healthcare provider about getting help. Try to manage the stressors you can control. Make an effort to live within your means to alleviate financial stress. If possible, work in a job that’s satisfying and leave one that isn’t.”

“Adopting some degree of serenity in face of life’s challenges … may help improve the perception of stress and result in better quality of life and better cardiovascular health,” he added.

Things to Consider:

  • Get regular physical activity to keep stress under control and live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
  • Try to live within your financial means to alleviate persistent money worries.
  • Do something social and make time for friends and family to achieve work-life balance.

1 “5 Things You Should Know About Stress,” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed online August 2019

2 “Taking Care of Yourself,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, accessed online August 2019

3 “Reducing Stress,” American Heart Association, May 2018

4 “Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study,” Lancet, February 2017

5 “What is Stress Management,” American Heart Association, April 2018

6 “Resilience in the Workplace,” American Heart Association, October 2017

7 “Resilience in the Workplace Infographic,“ American Heart Association, October 2017

8 “Working Out to Relieve Stress,” American Heart Association, January 2017

9 “Sleep and Stress,” National Sleep Foundation, accessed online August 2019

This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  



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