Stress and Heart Disease

It would seem a matter of common sense that high levels of stress would tax the heart and, therefore, that stress-reduction techniques would help the heart. But it’s not that simple. For example, for some years it was suggested that highly driven, so-called Type A people were more at risk for heart problems than other, more relaxed people.

But the truth is that the evidence for this theory is not at all clear. For one thing, researchers found that Type A people were also more likely to be smokers and to have high cholesterol and blood pressure, so lifestyle and diet choices may have been contributing factors no less important than stress.

In the end, there simply has not yet been any clear evidence to support the idea that people with Type A behavior are more likely than other people to have heart problems. On the other hand, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that certain kinds of stress may affect the heart.

It does appear that short, acute periods of very high stress can trigger heart problems. For example, researchers found that around the time of the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake, the rate of sudden cardiac death in that region jumped to over five times the normal rate.

We know less about the effects of longer-term, chronic stress. But a recent review of the small number of studies on stress and heart disease done to date suggests that the following types of everyday stress may possibly be related to heart disease:

  • Stress that causes depression or anxiety symptoms.
  • Stress related to work or occupation.
  • Stress related to having unstable or too few social relationships.

How, and to what extent, these stresses affect the heart is still unclear. What we do know is that any of these stresses can increase behaviors that are known to be harmful to the heart, such as smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and not exercising.

Therefore, taking steps to lower stress in your life may make it easier for you to avoid these behaviors and give you peace of mind as well. What kind of stress reduction will protect your heart? The evidence is mixed. One small study showed that relaxation therapy had no effect on lowering blood pressure in individuals with mild hypertension.

Yet another small study of twenty-three people in Italy showed that saying the rosary and repeating yoga mantras caused participants to feel more relaxed, slowed their breathing, and improved their heart rate. There is also some evidence to suggest that people with heart disease can lower their risk of future heart problems through formal stress-management training.

One technique, developed by a cardiologist, is called the “relaxation response” and is thought to help people manage stress and lower their risk of heart problems. It is thought that incorporating quiet periods of meditation, such as the relaxation response technique, into a person’s daily or weekly routine may help to lower blood pressure and other heart problems.

But many more studies will be needed before we can say any of these stress-reduction techniques have a true and long-standing effect on heart health. The same is true of antianxiety medications; there simply is no reliable research to suggest that they have significant benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease.