Suffering from a 'broken heart' due to acute grief may sound like a ludicrous myth, but you may be surprised to know that the condition actually mimics the symptoms of a heart attack1. When it comes to bottling up emotions, the majority of us tend to associate it with the negative impacts on our mental health rather than that on our heart health. Nevertheless, the intrinsic connections between our emotions and our heart health are just as essential. Negative states of mind, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger and chronic stress, can increase the risk for heart disease over time or worsen heart issues that already exist. When they are left undealt with over a long period of time, these conditions can lead to high blood pressure and even cardiac arrest.
It is, however, worth noting that stress is not always bad. There are two kinds of stress that impact your brain - helpful and unhelpful stress. Helpful stress (also known as eustress) can assist you with getting things done by helping you focus your attention. Studies have even found that eustress may help to protect against oxidative damage, which is linked to ageing and disease2. Unhelpful stress (distress), on the other hand, can be so severe that it can lead to fatigue and heart disease, as previously mentioned. In this article, we will be exploring the specific impacts of unhelpful stress on our heart health, as well as what we can do to effectively address and manage it.
How emotional stress affects our heart
Stress can be caused by a myriad of factors. For instance, psychosocial factors such as financial worries, the death of a loved one, unhappy relationships, poverty, income inequality and work stress can cause emotional stress and weaken the heart3. At a fundamental level, these factors work to trigger a negative chain reaction in the human body. When we are angry, anxious, frightened, or depressed, our body's natural response is to release stress hormones. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline prepare our bodies to deal with stress by causing the heart to beat more rapidly and the blood vessels to narrow. The result is a coordinated effort to push blood to the centre of the body as a part of our survival instinct. This "fight or flight" response can be traced back to prehistoric times when an extra burst of adrenaline to escape predators could be the only difference between life and death. Unfortunately, this means that stress-related hormones also have the ability to increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Combined with persistent stressors in our daily lives, our heart health is even more likely to be at stake.
The negative effects of extreme emotional stress
Studies have shown that people who feel socially isolated4 or chronically stressed by work5 or relationships6 are more prone to heart attacks and strokes. Extreme emotional stress is also known to perpetuate heart disease-related risk factors, such as unhealthy diets, a lack of exercise, sleep loss, and so on - all of which can set the stage for heart disease and other similar health problems. For people who already have pre-existing conditions such as coronary artery disease (CAD), their condition can be further exacerbated by emotional stress. In fact, any strong emotion can cause severe and fatal irregular heart rhythms for people with heart disease.
Research has backed this up, attesting that heart disease patients with anxiety are twice as likely to die within three years of a cardiac event7. Even for those of us who have no underlying heart conditions, extreme emotional stress can still present significant risks to our health. For instance, the risk of a heart attack increases 21-fold within 24 hours after the loss of a loved one8. Depression similarly increases the risk of harmful cardiovascular events, with major depression doubling the risk of heart-related deaths9. With so much research pointing to the interdependence of the heart and mind, it is evident that a comprehensive solution will be required to adequately address both aspects and achieve Whole Person Health.
Addressing emotions and stress for better heart health
Our responses to stress can be generally classified as either healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake, overeating, withdrawing from family and friends, along with other harmful behaviours can instead further compound any stress-related health issues. By intentionally choosing to stick with healthier stress management approaches, we can better protect ourselves against heart disease in a more sustainable and holistic manner.
As employers, this begins with the acknowledgement of the existing stigma when it comes to dealing with chronic stress. Start by advocating for a supportive work environment where employees can feel comfortable speaking out openly about their emotions and their mental health. Doing so will provide them with an invaluable avenue for them to deal with stress in a more open and effective manner. Furthermore, when it comes to prevention and health management, providing mental health resources and normalising therapy is also just as important as physical health screenings. Employers can similarly encourage employees to manage stress via daily mindful meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises, especially when these sessions are made easily accessible for them. At the end of the day, everyone deals with stress differently, so staying attentive and adapting to your employees' needs could prove to be the best way for you to support them in their health journey.
Over the past six decades or so, heart disease-related mortality rates have dropped tenfold10. Despite this achievement, there is still a long way to go in terms of mobilising more resources to effectively address the link between the emotional heart and biological heart. At Cigna, our belief of Whole Person Health emphasises the importance of interconnected care approaches relating to both the body and mind, and managing heart health is no different. If we are to look at better and more sustainable solutions for our health journey, then this crucial link between physical and mental health can no longer be ignored. To find out more about our Whole Person Health framework as well as how we can customise it to best suit your needs, contact us today.
1. Harvard Health. (2020). Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome).
2. Selna, E. (2018). How Some Stress Can Actually Be Good For You. Time.
3. O'Connor, A. (2018). How Emotions Can Affect the Heart. The New York Times.
4. Valtorta, N., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies.
5. Kivimäki, M., & Kawachi, I. (2015). Work Stress as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease.
6. De Vogli, R., Chandola, T., & Marmot, M. (2007). Negative Aspects of Close Relationships and Heart Disease.
7. Davis, A. (2019). How our emotions affect our heart health. Eehealth.
8. NHS. (2012). Heart attack risk much higher after bereavement.
9. Pillay, S. (2016). Managing your emotions can save your heart. Harvard Health.
10. O'Connor, A. (2018). How Emotions Can Affect the Heart. The New York Times.