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Stress and Your Heart: The Bad, the Good and the Best Cardiac Exercise

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When you feel stressed, your heart feels it, too. But what’s actually happening in your heart when you’re stressed? Does all stress hurt your heart? And how can you keep your heart healthy when stress is all around you? 

Rohit Bhatheja, MD, FACC, FSCAI, Vice Chairman, Cardiology, Physician Leader of AdventHealth CV Research has the answers to these questions and more — including which kind of exercise your heart likes best — and how feeling whole in body, mind and spirit fuels cardiac health. 

Your Emotions and Your Heart Health

For worse or better, your emotional well-being affects your physical health. The emotions you experience, like joy and stress, affect on what’s going on in your body, too. “Emotional variations are healthy for the heart,” Dr. Bhatheja says, but when a negative one becomes consistent, it can take a toll on many major organs, including your heart. 

“Unstable emotional situations, like a state of stress, can affect hemodynamics and hormones in the body, which affect blood pressure and heart rate,” Dr. Bhatheja says, “and that can directly affect your cardiovascular health, and your brain and kidneys, as well.”

How Stress Affects Your Heart

Your body’s stress response is on call 24 hours a day to balance the demands of your environment with your body's ability to meet them. And, your heart has a big part of this important physiological process.

“Stress usually causes increased blood pressure and heart rate, along with an adrenaline and hormone surge — all of which are similar to the fight-or-flight responses that make the heart work harder than normal,” explains Dr. Bhatheja.

But not all stress is negative, and many types of stress are normal, temporary parts of life. Your heart’s response to stress can be positive in the right context and harmful if it lasts too long.

Positive Stress and Your Heart

When you go for a run, stress hormones trigger your heart to pump faster and harder, which increases the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, so they can perform. And if a car pulls out in front of you on the road, within a fraction of a second, your stress hormones and heart work together to trigger a series of lightning-speed reactions that enhance your ability to swerve out of the way.

These reactionary situations aren’t the only ones where temporary stress can be healthy. “If you’re just starting your career or growing a family, those are positive types of stress,” says Dr. Bhatheja. “If you’re supporting a loved one after a loss, you’re stressed, but you’re helping them. It’s point-in-time stress that brings the best out of you,” Dr. Bhatheja explains.

Negative Stress and Your Heart

“With emotional stress, your body experiences norepinephrine adrenaline and cortisol hormone surges that are disproportionate to the physical demand,” Dr. Bhatheja explains. These fight-or-flight hormones are meant to assist you for only a short time, like escaping a life-or-death situation, before returning to normal.

However, chronic stress interferes with this natural balance, and the continuous release of stress hormones can cause the heart and other vital organs to stay revved up for too long.

Chronic Stress Raises Your Risk of Cardiovascular Conditions

When you’re chronically stressed at work or home (or perceive that you are), overexertion on your cardiovascular system and overexposure to stress hormones can have serious health consequences.

Dr. Bhatheja explains that sustained high blood pressure and heart rate, and inflammation in your circulatory system can all raise your risk of:

  • Atherosclerosis, plaque buildup in your arteries
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney damage or failure
  • Stroke
  • Thickening of the heart

Fact, Not Myth: Stress Causes Heart Disease

The effects of constant stress are crucial for you to understand (and manage) for one very important reason: Everyone is at risk of heart disease.

Some people have a lower or higher risk than others, but, “science has proven that stress does cause heart disease,” says. Dr. Bhatheja. “It’s no longer a myth; it’s a scientific reality.”

Dr. Bhatheja explains that people who face a higher-than-average risk of heart and vascular disease:

  • Are men over the age of 45
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Are post-menopausal women
  • Have diabetes
  • Smoke
  • Are overweight

As Dr. Bhatheja affirms, stress can be incredibly damaging to your heart. But, he says to take heart, too, because you’re not powerless to overcome stress.

What You Can Do to Keep Your Heart Healthy and Happy

While you can’t prevent stress, you can actively recognize your stress triggers and develop ways to cope with them in a healthful way. “If you can identify the source of stress in your life, then you can deal with it appropriately,” he says.

Coping with stress requires focusing on your emotional, but also spiritual and physical health. And to stay physically healthy, eating well (including not giving in to stress-related food cravings) and getting enough rest at night are key, and exercise is essential to manage emotional stress. It’s a good stress on your heart that brings out the best in your body.

Cardiovascular Exercise: The Healthiest Type of Stress for Your Heart

All forms of stress cause your heart to work harder than normal. But the difference between a healthy cardiac stress response and a harmful one is all about intention and control. “Your body’s stress response is persistent in stress but intentional in exercise,” Dr. Bhatheja clarifies.

“With cardiovascular exercise, you’re intentionally asking your heart to work harder by increasing the physical demand, and your hormone surges are under control. With emotional stress, the hormone surge is much higher than the actual physical demand, and it is neither intentional nor controllable,” says Dr. Bhatheja.

The Best Exercise for Your Heart

The key to good cardiac exercise is to increase your heart rate, keep it a bit high for two to three minutes, and then slow down, like you would on a treadmill. “This intentional up-and-down heart rate is what your heart likes,” Dr. Bhatheja says.

And if you don’t have time for any exercise, walking is better than doing nothing, he says. “If you have a busy job but still want to exercise your heart, the common-sense approach is to walk 20-30 minutes a day, at least three to five days a week,” he explains.

“Speed-walking is best. If you don’t have a major lung or cardiac disease, walk with an intensity that leaves you short of breath and unable to hold a conversation. Then, you are pushing your heart to a good extent. It’s a simple measure of sufficient exercise.”

If you enjoy relaxation techniques, stretching and quiet reflection are excellent ways to reduce stress.

Social Support: The Key to Coping With Stress in the Long-Term

The people you love can be invaluable sources of strength and support throughout every season of your life, especially the stressful ones.

“A balance of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being is extremely important to handle any stress. Your social support network at or outside the home is key to maintaining that balance,” says Dr. Bhatheja.

And the social network where people draw support from looks different for everyone. “For some people, it’s their family,” he says, “for others, it’s their pickleball group, which is a great way to meet friends, share your story and regain a sense of emotional balance.”

Here to Help You Feel Whole in Body, Mind and Spirit

At AdventHealth, whole-person care is at the heart of everything we do — for every patient, every time they see us.

“We ask every patient, ‘Do you have a loved one whom you feel comfortable talking to?’ and ‘Do you have a source of joy in your life?’” says Dr. Bhatheja. “It’s about more than preventing cardiovascular disease. We want to empower you to feel whole spiritually and emotionally, too, so you can lead a balanced, healthy life.”

If you or a loved one has questions about or needs help with a heart concern, we’re here for you. Learn more about whole-person care at the AdventHealth Cardiovascular Institute.

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