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How does stress affect your body?

February 04, 2021

Grace Lavalley, a nurse practitioner in Baystate Health’s Heart and Vascular Program, explains the science and offers tips for managing stress.

Perhaps you’re a healthcare provider working in the height of a pandemic, watching the news and witnessing a political riot on our U.S. Capitol, or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and late for work.

Your breath becomes quicker; your heart beats faster. Your body feels on edge. As stress develops and builds, you might think you’re having a heart attack.

This experience is called the “flight or fight” response. In a stressful situation, the body releases a surge of chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), which is a mechanism to help your body prepare for action. However, the reaction is counterproductive when you’re not necessarily in need to act or “fight-back.”

What is this stress response doing to the body?

Stress can be acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term) and affect the body directly or indirectly.

Grace Lavalley, a nurse practitioner in Baystate Health’s Heart and Vascular Program, shares how stress impacts your heart health and offers tips for coping.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress affects the body directly as it triggers inflammation, a known factor that contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease. Inflammation can damage the endothelium (interior lining of blood vessels). Stress may increase blood pressure, heart rate, cause vasoconstriction of blood vessels, (narrowing) and platelet aggregation (clot formation). A rise in heart rate and blood pressure can create an increased demand on the heart.

Stress can also affect the body indirectly, as many often turn to the comfort of high fat, high cholesterol foods, smoking, and alcohol use. These are all modifiable risk factors that can contribute to cardiovascular disease.

Acute Stress

Acute stress, which is usually due to a traumatic incident such as a loss of a child, may lead to a heart attack, even in individuals who may have no history of heart disease. This can cause damage to the heart muscle and ultimately affect the way it pumps. This condition is known as “broken heart syndrome”, “stress-induced cardiomyopathy” or also “takotsubo cardiomyopathy.”

Multiple studies have established that adverse life events are associated with heart attacks. In addition, disasters have been associated with an increase in cardiovascular events. For example, within 60 days after 9/11, there was a 49 percent increase in patients admitted with a heart attack through 16 different emergency rooms within a 50-mile radius of the World Trade Center. Other studies have shown that even shortly after life disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes there is an increase incidence of cardiovascular events.

Managing Stress

Think about how you manage your own stress. Do you eat to relax? Partake in smoking or alcohol use? Work too much? Procrastinate? Treatment of stress is both managing and relieving the stress but also the harmful habits it triggers. We all handle stress differently.

Let’s review how you may be able to accomplish stress management.

Try shifting your mindset to a positive attitude with the emphasis on gratitude. Gratitude allows us to focus on what we are thankful for which will in turn unleash us from negative emotions.

Try to become more physically active. Whether it is taking a walk, jog, or going on a hike, exercise releases chemicals called endorphins, which enhances our mood. Exercise not only helps with stress management, but it also protects against cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight.

It is also helpful to unplug from electronics, as work email, messages, and the news, which can be a contributing factor to our everyday stress. Even if it’s for 10 minutes out of the day, treat it as if it was your own time to escape. This time may even be an opportunity to participate in mindfulness by focusing on your breathing and relaxing your body and mind.

Above all, be patient with yourself. This is essential to do each and every day, but it’s now more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all trying to acclimate to a different way of living with new rules and guidelines that are evolving on a daily basis and trying to cope with the underlying fear of illness and mortality. You need to hear that it is necessary that you forgive yourself during this time. After all, it is healthy for your heart!

Learn more about stress and heart disease.


Caring for your heart is an essential part of self-care. And finding out your risk is an important step towards preventing heart disease.

More On Heart Disease Risk

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47% of Americans have at least 1 risk factor for heart disease.

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