The Effects of Stress on the Heart

Stress is a natural part of life. But there are moments when the pressures of keeping our families afloat, ourselves together, and our futures bright are so great that we feel as if we're living through times that try not only our souls but our hearts as well—quite literally. Scientists know that stress and heart disease are linked, but they have yet to pinpoint exactly why. Is it the adrenaline that courses through our veins whenever we feel stressed, thus raising our blood pressure and making our heart work harder? Or is it the unhealthy ways we tend to deal with stress—by smoking, eating fatty foods, drinking a little more than we should? Or is it a combination? Here are some recent findings the medical community has uncovered:

  • You may not think of a workout as relaxing, but several studies have shown that a regular exercise regimen lowers stress. And an article in the April 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that heart failure patients who exercised 25 to 30 minutes a day on a stationary bike or a treadmill enjoyed an 11 percent reduction in future hospitalizations or death.
  • About one in five people who undergoes a coronary artery bypass graft suffers major depression afterward and approximately the same number of graft patients experiences a mild bout of depression. A study published in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry reveals that cognitive behavior therapy and supportive stress management was more effective in combating this depression than the typical pharmaceutical intervention.
  • Sudden cardiac arrest accounts for about 400,000 deaths in the U.S. a year, and according to research published in the March 3 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology mental stress such as anger can lead to arrhythmias that can trigger sudden cardiac arrest. The study, conducted by the Yale University School of Medicine, followed 62 patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillators and found that their response to a mental stress test was a very good predictor of future arrhythmias; those who showed more anger were more likely to have an arrhythmia.
  • Last April, University of Florida researchers were able to pinpoint a genetic variation in heart disease patients who were more vulnerable to the physical manifestations of mental stress so much so that the blood flow to the heart was significantly lowered.4 Approximately 10 percent of heart disease patients suffer from this problem and have a threefold greater risk of dying.


1. Efficacy and Safety of Exercise Training in Patients With Chronic Heart Failure; Christopher M. O’Connor, MD,JAMA. 2009;301(14):1439-1450;

2. Treatment of Depression After Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery; Kenneth E. Freedland, PhD; Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(4):387-396;

3. Rachel Lampert, Vladimir Shusterman, Matthew Burg, Craig McPherson, William Batsford, Anna Goldberg, and Robert Soufer. Anger-Induced T-Wave Alternans Predicts Future Ventricular Arrhythmias in Patients With Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillators. J Am Coll Cardiol, 2009; 53: 774-778 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2008.10.053

4. David S. Sheps, M.D.; Archives of Internal Medicine; University of Florida (2008, April 18). Mental Stress Reduces Blood Flow To The Heart In Patients With Gene Variation, Study Shows;­ /releases/2008/04/080415114501.htm