Effects of Stress on the Cardiovascular System

Stress is an enemy of the health of our cardiovascular system. In fact, it promotes the development of alterations in the blood vessels.
Effects of Stress on the Cardiovascular System
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by el psicólogo Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 08 March, 2023

Stress is a factor involved both in the beginning, as well as in the development and outbreak of a cardiovascular accident. Stress is a response. It’s the way in which our body reacts to a stimulus that overwhelms us. When a stressful event overwhelms our ability to cope, we feel stressed, and this affects our cardiovascular system.

When we’re stressed, we react by mobilizing all the energy that we’re capable of. The objective is to face the situation and come out as victorious as possible. In this regard, when we’re stressed frequently or when we’re unable to lower our stress levels, different diseases can occur. Cardiovascular diseases are one type of them.

“Stress refers to the psychophysiological changes that occur in the organism in response to an overdemanding situation.”

-Isaac Amigo-

Stress: An enemy of the health of the cardiovascular system

When we get stressed, our homeostasis or “internal stability” is compromised. To try to restore balance, the neuroendocrine system is activated.

Therefore, in stressful situations, we need to extract energy from different molecules. Glucose, fats, or proteins are sources of energy, whose targets are the muscles. Faced with a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, so we can use two strategies: Escape or defense (fight or flight).

Also, the rate at which the heart pumps blood skyrockets, as does the rate at which we breathe. Our blood pressure also increases. These processes have the objective of increasing the supply of oxygen to the cells.

At the same time, digestion is paralyzed. The digestive process is consuming energy that’s needed elsewhere. The same happens with our sexual drive and with our immune system, which is inhibited.

“If the stressful situation lasts long enough, there is an analgesic reaction to the pain.”

-Isaac Amigo-

What are the symptoms of stress?

The effects of stress on health are varied.
There are many ways in which stress can manifest itself in daily life, including sleep habits.

Among the symptoms of stress, we can find the following:

  • Behavioral, such as crying, difficulty falling asleep, or avoiding tasks
  • Emotional, such as anguish or feelings of being more tense and irritable
  • Psychophysiological, such as muscle rigidity, tachycardia, or dizziness
  • Cognitive, such as rumination or concentration difficulties
  • Social, such as avoiding certain places or people

Therefore, among the effects of stress on the cardiovascular system, we can find different diseases. From episodes of arrhythmias to hypertension or angina pectoris. In fact, according to Isaac Amigo (2020), relationships have been found between intense stress and an increase of up to three times in the frequency of myocardial infarction in the population of Tel Aviv during a bombing.

“The term stress comes from the Greek stringere, which means ‘to cause tension’.”

-Cesáreo Fernández-

Stress is the hand that pulls the trigger for cardiovascular disease

Stress causes the sympathetic nervous system to become intensely activated. In doing so, the heart rate increases and the arteries constrict, increasing the pressure with which the blood circulates.

On the other hand, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is activated, which increases the concentration of fats in the blood. When stress is prolonged over time, these physiological responses can become chronic and wear down cardiovascular health.

We must take into account that in the circulatory system, there are many points where the vessels bifurcate and branch. It’s in these regions that the walls of the blood vessels can suffer greater wear. This is so because the blood pressure at these points is higher (Amigo, 2020).

“The multiplicity of the ramifications is such that no cell in the body is more than five cells away from a blood vessel.”

-Isaac Amigo-

When the wall of the blood vessels is damaged in any way, molecules that are released under stress (such as triglycerides or cholesterol) pass through these damaged spots and stick to them. They make the tissue thicker than it should be, making it difficult for blood to pass through. This is how stress favors the development of atherosclerotic plaques (Amigo, 2020).

What are these plaques?

These plaques are responsible for atherosclerosis. This word implies a process of formation of small deposits of cholesterol and other molecules that end up solidifying. In addition, connective and muscular fibers join together, which, when calcified, clog the vessels of the arteries and prevent normal blood flow.

In addition to these plaques, arteriosclerosis also appears. This term refers to the fact that the arterial vessels stop being as elastic as they should be. Consequently, cardiovascular capacity decreases and hinders adequate blood flow.

“When both processes occur in the coronary arteries, an ischemic process occurs that gives rise to angina pectoris.”

-Isaac Friend-

Other effects of stress on the cardiovascular system

An Asian man experiencing chest pain.
An increased incidence of cardiovascular phenomena has been observed in people who handle high levels of stress.

Many cases have been reported in which, after a natural disaster, the prevalence of cardiovascular accidents has increased. Sudden cardiac death is a good example of this, as was found after the 1994 Northridge earthquake (Amigo, 2020).

If in a soccer competition, the teams reach the penalty phase, the highest risk of heart attacks occurs in the two hours after the tiebreaker. In addition, stress can lead to other behaviors closely linked to the poor health of the cardiovascular system. Such is the case of smokers, sedentary people, or obesity.

“Over-thinking causes unnecessary stress and worry, and tends to blow things out of proportion.”

-Melissa Eshleman-

The type A behavior pattern

This way of behaving was described in the early 1980s by two specialists in cardiology, doctors Friedman and Rosenman. This pattern of behavior made certain people more likely to develop coronary heart disease. People with this behavioral pattern feel high pressure regarding time. They have little patience with the “slowness” of other people.

Their involvement in work is excessive and, as a result, relationships with others are based on constant tension. Interpersonal difficulties are high because they tend to behave aggressively and hostilely. Subsequently, only one element of this behavioral pattern has been taken into account: Hostility.

“People who don’t trust others, who have a very negative view of humanity, and who treat others with cynical hostility had higher coronary suffering.”

-Isaac Friend-

Hostility and anger

Being hostile is correlated with various parameters. In addition to cardiovascular health, a relationship has been found with excess weight, high blood pressure, excess cholesterol, and smoking. That is, hostility indirectly affects cardiovascular health through these variables.

However, there’s a component–anger–that’s directly related to the disease. For example, it has been seen that people who suffer an attack of rage have a risk of suffering a heart attack that’s five times higher in the following hours (Amigo, 2022). Also, if the person has atherosclerosis, the odds can skyrocket.

There are many ways in which stress affects cardiovascular health. It’s possible to decrease the level of stress we experience. To do this, we can implement relaxation strategies based on breathing.

Meditation, such as mindfulness, is also useful. In addition, exercising is an extraordinary ally, both in mitigating stress and promoting cardiovascular health.

“Stress is the garbage of modern life. We all create it, but if we don’t discard it, it will pile up and overtake our lives.”

-Danzae Pace-

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