True or False:

Stress causes a heart attack.

Stress plays a definite roll in heart disease, heart attack and stroke. But ALL BY ITSELF it doesn’t cause a heart attack.

First we have to examine the difference between stress and anxiety. Anxiety is a general feeling of unease or nervousness without a definite focus or known cause. Stress can generally be attributed to something known. Stress is natural and necessary for life. If you were unable to experience stress you wouldn’t jump out of the way of a speeding car or study for a final exam. This is situational stress. However, stressful situations can also be prolonged. Money worries, family problems and business issues are common examples of prolonged situations that produce stress.

Situational stress contributes to a heart attack if there are other underlying health problems. Prolonged stress, however, has long-term adverse effects on your body.

Stress, both situational and prolonged, affects all the systems of your body. In a stressful situation, whether short-term or prolonged, your body release stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase your heart rate, your blood pressure (by narrowing your blood vessels) and your blood sugar (cortisol will make you gain weight). That’s so you can jump out of the way of that car. But the same thing happens with prolonged stress, though you may not notice it as you would in a dangerous situation. But it’s happening whether you notice it or not.

You may not actually feel the direct effects of stress but your body knows that something is not right. A common reaction to this unconscious feeling is an attempt to reduce stress through unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or overeating. These behaviors are risk factors for heart disease.

So, now you are caught in a cycle of stress causing unhealthy behaviors that lead to increased risk of heart disease that leads to more stress. So, when the time comes for you to jump out of the way of that car, it may be too much for your heart. Or, if there isn’t a car, the situational stress may be hurrying for an appointment or one deadline too many.

Does stress cause a heart attack? In my opinion, yes, indirectly. But there are healthy ways to reduce stress. Stay tuned!


Mary Lou Bernardo, PhD, MSN


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