How Stress Affects Your Heart

From Dr. Jennifer Haythe, M.D. Cardiologist for the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care and Co-Director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center.

For centuries people have described a connection, albeit unwittingly, between the heart and mind. More than 2000 years ago the Roman physician Celsus noted, “Fear and anger and any other state of mind may often be apt to excite the pulse.” (Rosch 2004). The 17th century English physician William Harvey wrote, “Every affection of the mind that is attended either with pain or pleasure, hope or fear, is the cause of an agitation whose influence extends to the heart.” (Harvey, 1628). These historical figures were clearly onto something. And common expressions like “dying of a broken heart” and “heartache” continue to weave the brain and the heart together into one symbiotic organ.

Yet studying the brain-heart connection has been difficult as it is hard to quantify stress, emotions and, yes, heartbreak. These are subjective feelings, and yet the latest research has begun to shed light on this important relationship. For instance, a study in The Lancet this year looked to quantify and correlate stress and cardiovascular disease. Previous studies have shown that high levels of activity in the amygdala, a portion of the brain, correlates with stress and anxiety. This study looked at 293 patients who had PET/CT imaging of their brain. They were followed for an average of 3.7 years. Patients with higher levels of amygdalar activity on PET/CT scans also had higher rates of subsequent cardiovascular disease and with an earlier onset.

Last year, the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds made headlines with the subsequent death of Fisher’s mother, who is thought to have died from “a broken heart.” The “Broken Heart Syndrome,” or stress-cardiomyopathy, is a well-defined disease. More common in women, stress-cardiomyopathy causes previously healthy patients to develop acute heart failure in the setting of a life stressor (divorce, death of family member, upsetting argument), and present to the hospital with symptoms and signs of a heart attack in the absence of blockages in the coronary arteries. Most likely mediated by a surge in stress hormones, stress-cardiomyopathy demonstrates the power of the mind on the heart.

More generally, it is long thought that stress contributes to heart disease by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, and enhancing dangerous behaviors like over-eating, smoking, drinking, and using drugs. In 2002, the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT) found that chronic work stress and marital dissolution correlated with higher cardiovascular mortality in men followed over a 9-year period.

As scientists continue to find ways to prove the mind-heart connection, we can safely assume it exists and make changes to our lives accordingly. Try a yoga class, meditation, or simply quiet walks to clear your head and minimize stress in your life. Try to sleep at least 8-9 hours a night and disengage from work and technology several times a day. If you are feeling depressed and anxious, talk to a doctor who can help you get help.

Check out this guide to heart health from Dr. Jenn Haythe, then try one of these at-home workouts!


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