How does stress affect my heart?

Reduce stress by healthy lifestyle
Reduce stress by healthy lifestyle

We all have some stress in our lives – and a certain amount of pressure can be stimulating and motivating. But too much stress can impact on your health – and leave you finding it hard to cope.

Where does stress come from1?

Stress can be caused by major life events, such as the death of a spouse, divorce, job loss and serious illness. But on a day-to-day basis, work seems to be a major culprit, with long hours, heavy workloads and job insecurity common causes of stress. 

Many of us also worry about factors beyond our control, such as house prices, identity theft, terrorism and climate change.

How does stress affect your body?

Stress affects people in different ways. You may feel aggressive, irritable, tired, tearful and indecisive.2

 Under stress, the body releases hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, causing an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. Our pupils dilate and we get an energy surge.3

  This set of physical changes, known as ‘fight or flight,’ is a primitive response that evolved to help us see off physical threats. Because many modern stresses don’t need a physical response – you may be stressed due to a big phone bill as opposed to running away from a woolly mammoth – these hormones don’t get used up, and if they build up, they can cause health problems. Short-term symptoms range from bowel changes, trouble sleeping and muscle aches to low sex drive and food cravings. But there may be more serious consequences if we’re in a state of stress long term.  4

The long-term impact of stress

Over time, stress can result in:5

  • Raised blood pressure. High blood pressure can leave you more at risk of stroke or heart attack.
  • Fat around your middle.  High levels of cortisol can encourage a build-up of fat around your waist. This type of fat may increase your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.6
  • Unhealthy behaviour. Many of us resort to unhealthy habits such as overdoing alcohol, smoking, eating junk food and not exercising when under stress. This can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • An increased risk of depression. Depressed people may be less likely to accurately stick to a medication regime or be motivated enough to follow a healthy lifestyle.

How to take charge of stress7

While stressful events may seem outside of your control, it may not be the events themselves, but how we deal with them that matters.

There are things you can do to feel more in control:

  • Get informed! Learning about your condition and its causes will help you feel more in control, therefore alleviating stress.
  • Be practical. Suddenly having to take lots of tablets at different times of the day can be confusing and potentially stressful. Ask your pharmacist about tablet dispensers – you can get ones with alarms.
  • Put relaxation in your diary. When we relax, our stress hormones fall, blood pressure goes down and heart rate and breathing slows down.
  • Get to the source. Write down the sources of stress in your life and consider how you can deal with them. Talking therapies such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy may also help.
  • Get active. Exercise uses up adrenaline and other stress hormones, as well as helping to strengthen the heart and improve blood circulation. But check with your doctor first. 

Try this instant stress reliever:

Sit or lie comfortably and tune in to your breathing. Put one hand on your upper chest and one just below your ribs on your abdomen. Gently breathe in, feeling your abdomen rise slowly under your hand; then breathe out for slightly longer, feeling it fall. Pause for a few seconds and repeat. Only the hand on your abdomen should move if you’re breathing correctly. Try this for five minutes a day. 


Want to lead a healthier lifestyle? Get tips on how to boost your motivation and achieve your goals.

1, Accessed November 2018

2, Accessed November 2018

3, Accessed November  2018

4, Accessed November  2018

5, Accessed November 2018

6Epel, E. E., et al. (1999), ‘Stress‐Induced Cortisol, Mood, and Fat Distribution in Men’. Obesity Research, 7: 9-15. doi:10.1002/j.1550-8528.1999.tb00385.x

7All tips: Permission to Publish, Clare Moloney, Health psychology specialist, Atlantis Healthcare