Stress, Anxiety and Heart Health: What’s the Link?
We generally perceive the heart and brain as two separate entities in the body. Perhaps this is because cardiology and neurology are independent disciplines, or because the brain and heart are located in different areas of the body. This, however, is a common misconception. In truth, these organs couldn’t be more closely connected. When negative emotions infiltrate your brain, the adverse impact on your heart will quickly follow suit.
Stress and anxiety
Contrary to popular belief, stress isn’t always bad. As humans, we’ve evolved to experience this emotion to tackle sudden problems head-on. A surge of stress enabled us to flee danger when we were hunter-gatherers, for instance. But we’re also designed to deal with stress in short, bite-sized bursts. And this can sometimes feel impossible in our ultra-modern lives (enter: work deadlines, social pressures, academies commitments, and financial struggles). The real kicker is that chronic stress can implicate the cardiovascular system.
Stress: the science
In a stressful situation, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol – hormones that cause both your heart rate and breathing to speed up temporarily. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and primes the body for ‘fight or flight’. Being on constant high alert can have some pretty nasty effects: it can lead to chest pain, rapid heart rate, palpitations, and even increase blood pressure – all of which strain the heart.
Consider this: sometimes anxiety symptoms can be so severe, they masquerade as a heart attack, otherwise known as a panic attack.
‘Broken heart syndrome’
This condition isn’t mere folklore. Though rare, ‘broken heart syndrome’ is a real medical ailment brought on by sudden shock, grief, or tragedy. An outpouring of stress hormones triggers a short-lived disruption to the heart’s normal pumping function, causing shortness of breath and angina (sudden, severe chest pain). That cardiologists are told to treat this condition as if it were a heart attack is a startling reminder of just how interconnected the heart and brain are.
Loneliness is widely touted to be the next public health epidemic in the UK. Needless to say, this is grave cause for concern. A lack of social connection can have devastating repercussions for health, especially concerning the heart. According to a study conducted by the University of York, social isolation may increase the risk of heart attack or angina by 29% and stroke by 32%i. The social psychologist, John Cacioppo, confirms loneliness is associated with the hardening of the arteries, which can cause high blood pressure and heighten the risk of heart diseaseii.
‘The Roseto effect’
In 1964, a study conducted by Dr Stewart Wolf analysed the population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto, a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. During the seven-year examination period (1955-1961), Wolf discovered there was a complete absence of heart disease in men under the age of 55iii.
Despite eating red meat, smoking unfiltered cigars, working in toxic slate mines, and drinking red wine with reckless abandon, the Rosetans had remarkably close-knit social patterns that were mutually supportive and cohesive. They had strong community and familial ties, where the elderly were revered – not marginalised. Notably, the rates of heart disease rose as the Roseto community became more ‘Americanised’.
Wolf concluded the Roseto community nourished each other. And this, in turn, nourished their hearts. Using the Rosetans as an example, he hypothesized that losing community could prove fatal.
Did you know?
Humans are a social species. We need socialisation to survive and prosper. The very health of our heart depends on it!
Your heart’s desire: healing stress
There’s no doubt modern life has given rise to more and more cases of psychological stress, anxiety, and, increasingly, loneliness. Never before have we been more overworked, under-slept, and – despite the all-seeing eye of social media – disconnected. It’s wreaking havoc with our mood, immunity, and now, it would seem our hearts. The solution? Carve out some ‘you’-time. Give yourself permission to relax. And make it a non-negotiable part of your daily schedule.
Setting aside time each day to pause and meditate could work wonders for your heart. In a five-year study, 201 subjects with coronary artery disease were asked to practise transcendental meditation (a technique in which you sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and silently repeat a mantra) for 15-minutes a day. Researchers found that a short burst of daily meditation reduced the risk of death, heart attack, and stroke by an impressive 48%iv.
Why not use your commute to unwind and meditate? Download a meditation app, plug yourself in, and embrace a moment of stillness before the day ahead.
You may dismiss breath-work as just another hocus-pocus wellness trend, but there’s a stack of evidence to suggest diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most powerful tools to fight anxiety and stress. Unlike traditional breathing, which tends to be chest-heavy, diaphragmatic breathing engages the belly and activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the area of the brain that works to slow down the body’s response to stress. This helps to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol, thereby relaxing the entire body.
‘Box breathing’ is one variation of diaphragmatic breathing. Try to breathe exclusively through your nose when practising this.
Pushing your belly out, inhale fully for 4 counts
Hold the breath for 4 counts
Exhale fully for 4 counts, drawing your navel towards your spine
Then, hold the breath for another 4 counts
Repeat this process for as long as you need to relax and calm down
Beyond making the heart strong and robust, exercise also has a compelling neurochemical basis that further supports cardiovascular health. Notably, physical activity can reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which are known to tax the heart. So, next time you feel flustered, see red or notice a dip in your mood, put on your running trainers, do some push-ups, or simply take a brisk walk around the block.
Stressed? Anxious? Frazzled? We’ve got the antidote. Let loose and shake your entire body vigorously for a few minutes. You may look a little strange (and will probably want to do it in private) but trust us – you’ll feel all the better for it. Think of it as shaking off all that jittery adrenaline.
Whether you’re in a new city, feeling detached from your friends, or at a different phase of life to your loved ones, we all have the propensity to feel isolated and lonely. But you shouldn’t have to sit with this feeling for long. There are simple ways to tackle the loneliness blues:
Make new connections – join a class or group based on your hobbies or interests
Try a peer support service via a charity or face-to-face befrienders service
Look after yourself – get enough sleep, make healthy food choices, do some exercise, spend time outside in nature and prioritise self-care
Make a list of the people you like to be with when you’re lonely – a friend, family member, or acquaintance. Avoid leaning on a single person.
Try giving back – volunteering can be wonderful for loneliness
Consider speaking to a therapist, counsellor, or social prescriber
Try striking up a conversation with a stranger – a barista, the person sitting next to you on the train, or a neighbour
Valtorta. N., Kanaan. M., et al. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 102(13), 1009-1016.
Gammon. K. (2019). Why Loneliness Can Be Deadly. Livescience.com. Available online: https://www.livescience.com/18800-loneliness-health-problems.html.
Egolf. B., Lasker. J., et al. (1992). The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates. American journal of public health. 82(8), 1089–1092.
Walton. K.G., Schneider. R.H., et al. (2004). Review of controlled research on the transcendental meditation program and cardiovascular disease. Risk factors, morbidity, and mortality. Cardiology in review. 12(5), 262–266.
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Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.