Anxiety, Stress & The Heart

When we think about a healthy heart, we tend to only think about the physical aspects, like blood pressure, heart rate, and 02 (oxygen) saturation. We often forget about the emotional aspects of heart health. The effects of chronic emotions like anger, anxiety (stress), depression can hurt the heart if left unchecked. Today we’re going to focus specifically on stress and anxiety, what it is, how it affects the heart, and what you can do to support your emotional and physical health through times of anxiety and stress. First, let’s talk about what is stress & anxiety are and how are they’re different.

Stress is an emotion that we’ve all experienced at least once in our lifetime. The American Psychological Association found that 75% of Americans suffer from moderate to high-stress levels. An outside ‘stressor always causes stress,’ whether it’s big things like bills, a deadline at work, an upcoming test, or smaller things like running late for work, deciding what to make for dinner, etc. It’s our bodies responding to ‘what’ is causing us upset.

Anxiety is a little different. Although there is some overlap with the two emotions, especially when it comes to some of the body’s reactions to them, anxiety and stress are not the same.

Anxiety is less about a physical stressor and more about the reaction of worry and unease. Feelings of anxiety are perfectly normal, especially when you’re faced with ‘real’ danger. The problem for most people who suffer from anxiety is that they experience the effects without the ‘real’ danger being present. It’s not uncommon for people who have anxiety not to know where the anxiety is stemming from. Still, our bodies react to the two emotions in very similar ways. When we’re stressed or anxious, our body thinks it is in danger and goes into a ‘fight or flight’ mode.

But what does this have to do with your heart?

Well, let’s get technical 

Stress and anxiety release a hormone called epinephrine/adrenaline, which causes a cascade of reactions like:

Increased heart rate and blood pressure

Constricting major blood vessels

Dilation of the small airway passages in the lungs and rapid breathing, which over time becomes shallow as well.

Release of blood sugar

Release of stored fats

All this is done to give the body energy to run or fight. Which is great if you’re actually in danger, not so great if it’s your body’s response to everyday stress. Long term, though, this reaction can cause strain on the heart.

Sped up Rapid heart rate: Stress and Anxiety can cause a speed up accelerate heart rate, which over time, can put additional pressure on the heart. It’s not uncommon for people mid panic attack to have chest pains because of this reaction. When chronic, it can eventually lead to more concerning issues related to blood pressure, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, chest pain, heart failure, or strokes.

Less oxygen: When you’re chronically stressed or anxious, you often have more shallow, rapid breathing. This brings less oxygen to the lungs and blood, and makes it harder for your heart to get that oxygen around your body, and over time may cause damage to the heart itself.

Bad Digestion: When you’re body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, the blood in your stomach gets rushed to your extremities. With less blood in your stomach, you’re not able to digest your food. This is what causes feelings, nausea, or diarrhea. During this time, bacteria can also leak out of your gut and get caught up in your bloodstream, and eventually reach your heart. Over time this will cause inflammation in the heart and can lead to several heart-related afflictions.

Your heart has a hard enough job as is, and while it might take time for your heart to feel the burdens of a life filled with stress or anxiety, it’s important to think about and take care of these things now. The sooner you can manage your stress and anxiety, the less time it will have to create havoc in your body.

But what can you do? Lots of things!

Stress and anxiety are hard to get out of. Especially when you’re caught in the cycle of those emotions, but there are lots of little things you can do to make living with stress and anxiety easier.

Immediate things:

(like if you’re smack dab in the middle of a panic attack)

Call someone. The act of talking to another person can help take your mind off of the thought, causing the stress or anxiety long enough to allow your body to come out of the ‘fight-or-flight’ cycle. If you’re feeling stressed, it could help you find solutions to whatever is stressing you out, and if you’re having a panic attack talking to someone could be the voice of reason that takes you out of illogical cyclical thinking.

Drink something hot. Something like a non-caffeinated hot tea (hot enough that it warms up your body but not so hot that you burn your tongue) can help ground you. This is especially good if you’re getting chills. Chamomile or Verbena teas are calming choices.

Play a game. There are many free apps available on smartphones, which are designed to help those who are stuck in moments of anxiety and stress. But just so long as the game you’re playing requires at least some concentration it should be enough to divert your mind and take you out of the moment of panic.

Create a list of things you’re grateful for . Sometimes when we’re feeling anxious and stressed, we get caught in a spiral of negative thinking, creating a list of things you’re grateful for can lift your mood. It’s hard to start, especially when caught in those negative thoughts, but by the time you’re done, it can help. If you already have a list, carry it around with you and read it whenever you get overwhelmed.

Long term solutions:

Exercise. Being physically active can help your mood because your body releases mood-boosting endorphins during exercise. And it’s also good for your heart! Working out can be great if you’re feeling stressed, but it’s common for people mid panic attack to feel even worse from the elevated heart rate and quick breathing that exercise demands.

Meditate. Meditation allows for relaxation and inner reflection that can help fortify the body against stress and anxiety. It slows the body back down. If meditation is something you’re skilled at, this can also help amid a panic attack, but it does take time to become successful at meditation, so even if you don’t see results right away, stick with it. Keep in mind that there are many different meditation techniques out there, and you might have to shop around a little before finding the right one for you.

Massage. Massages can relax the body, which in turn will help relax your mind. These do tend to cost money, but they’re helpful to get in times that you’re feeling extra stressed and anxious.

Eating a balanced diet low in sugars, stimulants like caffeine, processed foods, and high in vegetables and proteins. Try foods like avocados, asparagus, berries, oatmeal, oranges, nuts, seeds, and the list goes on. You get the idea.

Get some sunshine / Vit D. Going outside, especially on beautiful sunny days, can help raise your mood.

Get help from a professional. Some people tend to view therapy in a negative light. But it can be conducive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are a lot of different therapies and therapists out there, and not every one of them is going to help you. When looking for a therapist or healer, you must find someone who fits with you. If you can’t trust them, then it’s not going to work. But they’re a great resource, especially for people with chronic stress and anxiety.

Naturopath, Dr. Maggie Fox, is a great resource, she’s helped many people manage their stress and anxiety as well as depression both physically and emotionally, and she can help create a team of support for you. Make an appointment today to get your heart health and emotional wellness back on track!