Understanding the Impact of Stress on the Heart

For too long, stress has been treated as a mental or psychological concern, without much understanding of its physical implications. But even the ancient Greeks thought of stress as a disorder of both body and mind, which could potentially lead to disease and even death. The Greek writer, Homer, tells the story of Achilles, the legendary warrior in Greece’s war against Troy, becoming increasingly debilitated from an illness we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which ultimately destroyed him, first mentally and then physically. The hero, who could not be defeated in battle, succumbed in the end to his inner wounds. Still today, we refer to someone’s hidden weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the “Achilles heel” of that person.

Chronic Stress Is
One of the Most Common Causes
For Heart Disease

The ability to experience stress is actually an asset that has helped our species to survive since we came into existence. Researchers have identified the stress response as a physiological event that helps us cope with emergency situations. In other words, stress is our natural way of dealing with danger.

When we encounter serious threats to life and limb, we are usually left with one of two choices: Fight back or run. This is also known as the “fight or flight syndrome,” which is basically what all stress experiences come down to.

Whichever way we decide to go, the body reacts immediately by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which are both performance-enhancing hormones. Simultaneously, heart rate and blood pressure rise dramatically. The clotting ability of the blood increases to reduce bleeding in case of injury. The liver dispatches additional fat and sugar reserves to the blood for fuel. Breathing quickens to provide more oxygen. Meanwhile, food digestion is temporarily suspended and the immune system is suppressed, since these are unessential functions in a battle for survival.

All this happens as part of an amazingly concerted and well-orchestrated action process.
But while stress reactions are useful in cases of emergency, they can be outright toxic if they become part of everyday life. That is precisely what happens to people who suffer from so-called “chronic stress.” The body’s defense mechanism meant for survival turns into a self-destructing hazard.

Persistent high blood pressure leads to an increased risk of heart attack. High levels of fat and sugar in the blood stream can result over time in diabetes. Ongoing suppression of the immune system makes us more vulnerable to diseases. Chronic stress is believed to be responsible, at least in part, for many life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.

Heightened hormone activity during stress causes not only the heart to beat faster to pump more blood, the blood vessels themselves also constrict and become narrower, making the task even harder. This combination spells trouble, especially for those who are already at risk. Unhealthy eating habits, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and lack of physical activity only increase the vulnerability to the effects of stress.

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