Coping With Stress the Heart-Healthy Way

The physical reactions to stress are undeniable. Your hands shake, and your pulse races. But stress also can be bad for your heart depending on the person.

“Everyone responds to stress a little differently,” says Erin Mattocks, DO, cardiologist, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, UPMC Hamot. “Overall, stress is not going to set you up for heart disease. But your behavior and the way you deal with stress can play a role in heart health.”

Learn more about stress’ effect on your heart and how you can manage it.

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Stress and Your Heart

When a person experiences stress, their body releases cortisol and adrenaline to initiate the “fight or flight” response. This reaction gives you a burst of energy and strength to fight off or run away from a perceived threat.

But if stress is always present and the body is constantly preparing to fight or flee, that elevated cortisol level can lead to anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and weight gain. It also can lead indirectly to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Some people may deal with chronic stress by smoking, drinking alcohol, or overeating. Those habits can increase a person’s risk for heart disease in the long term.

Finding healthier ways to deal with stress, like regular exercise or meditation, can counteract the effects of stress. Even something as simple as going for a 30-minute walk several times a week can help lower your stress and strengthen your heart.

“Exercise is a great stress reducer,” Dr. Mattocks says. “It’s not only beneficial for your physical health but your emotional health as well.”

Is a Broken Heart a Real Thing?

Dealing with chronic stress with good habits can help your heart in the long run. But sometimes acute stress can have a profound effect on the way your heart functions. It’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or, in layman’s terms, “broken heart syndrome.”

“Broken heart syndrome is a weakening of the left ventricle, which is the heart’s main pumping chamber,” Dr. Mattocks says. “It prevents the heart from contracting efficiently, and the overall heart function can decline.”

A sudden, significant emotional blow, such as the death of a loved one, can lead to broken heart syndrome. A serious illness or physical trauma also can cause it.

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are often indistinguishable from a heart attack, Dr. Mattocks says.

“If an EKG shows abnormalities but the coronary arteries look good on catheterization, a poor heart squeeze may be due to broken heart syndrome,” she says.

The condition, which often does not result in long-term effects, is much more common in women than in men. It typically affects people aged 60 and older.

What to Do If You’re Worried About Your Heart

Heart attack symptoms can often be vague and mimic other illnesses. But if you suspect something is not right with your heart, go to the Emergency Department.

“If you are questioning your symptoms, you should always err on the side of caution and go to the hospital,” Dr. Mattocks says. “If it is something serious, the longer you wait, the more likely you are to have long-term effects and irreversible damage.”

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute provides world-class cardiovascular care for a wide range of conditions. To schedule an appointment, call 1-855-876-2484, email, or visit us online.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.