We are all aware that too much stress in our lives is bad for us, but it’s easy to forget just how bad. Stress has been linked to insomnia, depression, weight gain, headaches, and more. Now, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has linked chronic mental stress to an increased risk of cardiovascular events.
In this study, researchers recruited 918 participants who had underlying stable coronary heart disease and studied how they reacted to physical (exercise or pharmacologically induced) and mental (public speaking) tests of stress. Specifically, the researchers measured whether these stress tests induced cardiac ischemia, a condition where blood flow to the heart is reduced or restricted. Overall, mental stress induced ischemia in 16% of patients, exercise or pharmacological methods induced it in 31% of patients, and 10% of patients experienced ischemia in both tests. After receiving the stress test results, the researchers then monitored the participants for four to nine years and measured outcomes including cardiovascular death, nonfatal heart attacks, and hospitalizations for heart failure.
The most surprising part of this study was that, for patients who experienced reduced or restricted blood flow to the heart during one or both tests, the participants with mental stress-induced cardiac ischemia had the worst outcomes. Mental stress-induced ischemia was significantly associated with an increased risk of both a nonfatal heart attack and cardiovascular death. These findings confirmed the results of earlier studies linking psychological stress to heart attack risk, even in those with no underlying cardiovascular disease.
Stress may cause damage to the heart because of the “fight or flight” response, which causes us to release a variety of hormones. These hormones are helpful for survival in the short term but can cause inflammation and damage to our bodies if chronically released. We can experience this response due to many life circumstances, such as stress surrounding work, relationships, or finances. To minimize the damage from stress, experts recommend getting regular exercise and adequate sleep. Mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation can also be helpful for reducing stress and its negative effects. Additionally, removing major stressors in your life can go a long way toward improving your health and wellbeing — if your job is causing undue stress in your life, it may be time to find a new one.