How does acute mental stress affect the heart and blood vessels?

Michael B. Finkelstein, MD
Internal Medicine
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response -- our built-in mechanism for safely escaping a life-threatening emergency. Our bodies have not quite caught up to the modern era, so our brains are unable to distinguish between the stress of a lion chasing us and the stress of a nasty argument with a loved one, a demoralizing work experience or a televised news report about violence in another city.

When we are in a state of stress, no matter what the cause, we get an adrenaline rush. Our heart rate increases, enabling our body to pump more blood to the big muscles needed to run, climb, leap and hoist our way to physical safety. In turn, our blood flow immediately diverts from our “non-essential” organs -- the liver, kidney, brain and digestive tract -- to our big muscle groups. Our blood also clots more easily, so that we don’t bleed to death, in case we’re injured during our “great escape.”

For short durations, this stress response not only is healthy but also potentially life saving. When it is locked in the “on” position, as a result of the frenzy and rush-rush-rush of modern life, however, we end up in a state called “sympathetic overdrive.” Constantly diverting blood flow from our intestinal tract to our major muscle groups, we improperly digest our food, thereby failing to convert it into nutrients. We also become further depleted of nutrients like magnesium, which our body utilizes to run the intracellular machinery that prepares us for combat or escape. Meanwhile, our arteries get worn down, from the heart constantly beating harder and faster than it needs to in a normal, relaxed state.

Over time, the circulation of stress molecules and chronic bombardment of the arteries result in damage that makes the arteries more brittle. Family history of early onset heart disease and chronic stress can increase your risk of heart disease.

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Leopold D. Galland, MD
Internal Medicine
Acute mental stress causes the release of several hormones that are damaging to your heart and blood vessels:
  • CRF (corticotrophin releasing factor) causes inflammation that damages the walls of blood vessels
  • cortisol raises blood pressure and blood sugar
  • adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system raise blood pressure, reduce blood flow by causing arteries to constrict, increase heart rate and the risk of an irregular heart beat (cardiac arrhythmia) and increase the tendency to form blood clots.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.