Can Stress Cause a Heart Attack?
Short-term stress can be a helpful thing for your body, providing focus and attention needed to overcome a specific situation. However, stress can also increase your blood pressure and lead to unhealthy habits that ultimately affect your heart health. Over the long term, it can even lead to cardiac problems and increase your risk of a heart attack. Fortunately, there are many ways to relieve your stress and reduce heart-related risks.
What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, clinically known as a myocardial infarction, is a medical condition caused by a lack of blood flow to the heart muscle. During a heart attack, one or more of the blood vessels supplying blood to the heart muscle becomes obstructed. As the affected part of the heart muscle loses its supply of oxygen, it begins beating less effectively.
The severity of a heart attack depends on how much of the heart muscle is affected and how quickly it is treated. If a heart attack is treated quickly, doctors may be able to restore oxygen to the affected parts of the heart muscle before permanent damage occurs. Once the affected area has gone without oxygen for more than two hours, however, heart muscle begins to die and the damage becomes permanent. Heart attacks can be fatal and are the leading cause of death in the United States.
Stress and Heart Health
Stress can have a significant impact on your heart’s health. Stress occurs as a response to an existing or potential danger and is important for helping you overcome dangerous things. The idea of danger may be something like potentially being struck by a car as you’re crossing a road; it can also be much more benign, like disappointing your boss or saying something incorrectly while speaking in public.
Chronic stress is stress that occurs over a prolonged period. It can be caused by things like demanding work environments, relationship difficulties or financial hardships. All of these situations can activate the body’s stress response, but they are not able to be quickly and immediately addressed. This makes the stress continue for a prolonged period.
Stress increases your blood pressure. Increased blood pressure, especially over a prolonged period of time, can create microscopic cracks in your arteries. When your body attempts to repair this damage, it can lead to a buildup of plaque and other materials that can ultimately create blockages.
Stress can also lead you to engage in risky health behaviors, such as smoking, eating unhealthy foods and failing to stay active. These changes in behavior often lead to situations that worsen heart problems, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
Early Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
Because a heart attack can be fatal, it is important to be able to quickly recognize when a heart attack is occurring so that you can seek rapid treatment. There are several potential early warning signs of a heart attack, including:
- Chest pain
- Pain in the jaw, an arm, a shoulder, the back or the abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Nausea, typically accompanying other symptoms
Keep in mind that the signs of a heart attack often vary between men and women. Men will typically have more “textbook” symptoms, such as chest pain and problems breathing. Women will tend to have less specific symptoms, such as back pain and nausea.
Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack
A panic attack is a brief but overwhelming episode of severe anxiety. Panic attacks may be mistaken for heart attacks and are often triggered by chronic stress. Someone having a panic attack may feel as if they are dying and have shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea and other symptoms that are very similar to a heart attack.
Someone who has never experienced a panic attack before will often not be able to tell if they are having a heart attack. If you or someone you know is unsure whether they are having either a panic attack or a heart attack, it is always best to treat it like it could be a heart attack. Failing to treat a heart attack can be fatal, and treating a panic attack that was thought to be a heart attack will not create any health risks.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Heart attack symptoms are initially caused by pain that occurs when the muscle in the heart does not get enough oxygen. Your heart muscle is not normally something that sends pain signals to your brain, and your brain can interpret these signals as being pain in another area, such as a shoulder or arm.
As the heart muscle becomes damaged, the heart begins beating less effectively and affects how blood circulates in the body. This can cause another set of symptoms to develop. The symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person, but they may include:
- Chest pain
- Arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, back or stomach pain
- Shortness of breath
- Passing out
While a heart attack can cause many different symptoms, the classic symptom is chest pain — especially on the left side — that feels like crushing pressure.
Improving Heart Health With Stress Reduction
Stress is not normally the sole factor that leads to a heart attack. However, it is a modifiable risk that you can reduce, which ultimately lowers your overall risk of having a heart attack. There are many different ways that you can try to reduce stress, including:
Yoga is an exercise technique that involves stretches and regulated breathing. While there is certainly a physical component to yoga, it also has a heavy focus on relaxation and mindfulness that improves mood and reduces stress. Yoga can promote heart health by reducing stress and increasing physical activity.
Exercise creates many physical benefits but also helps to improve your overall mood and reduce stress. Exercising releases endorphins in the brain, causing relaxation and improving mood. Vigorous exercise can also serve as a productive outlet for pent-up stress.
Meditation can mean different things to different people, but it typically involves a time of quiet focus on the present. Meditation may involve clearing your mind and focusing only on your breathing. When meditating, many people find it helpful to listen to relaxing music or follow a guided meditation recording. Meditation is often helpful in reducing stress levels.
Reduce Caffeine Intake
Caffeine is a mild stimulant that can actually increase stress and anxiety. By reducing your use of caffeine, you may be able to reduce the amount of stress that you experience.
While it may not always be possible to do, removing yourself from stressful situations can help you improve your mental well-being. An example of this could be quitting a stressful job and searching for a position that is better for your mental health. Situations like financial hardship can’t be fixed the same way, but finding ways to exert more control over the situation can help. For example, a person may relieve some of their financial stress by creating a detailed budget and developing a long-term plan.
Taking slow, deep breaths triggers a response in the body that causes physical and mental relaxation. Taking time to do these slow, deep breaths for even a few minutes each day may lead to reductions in your stress levels.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce stress and improve mental health in your daily life, Nobu can help. This free-to-use app puts a wide range of mental health resources at your fingertips, including guided yoga and breathing exercises, mood trackers, journaling services, mental health lessons and much more. For an additional cost, you can also receive telehealth treatment from licensed mental health professionals. Download the Nobu app today and see all the ways it can help you lead a happier, healthier life.
Written by – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. He obtained his Associates in Applied Science in Nursing from Cayuga Community College in Auburn, New York, then went on to obtain his Bachelors in Science from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Biology and minoring in Biological… Read more.
Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips
Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.
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