Why Worrying Hurts Your Heart

The link between heart-attack risk and factors such as Type-A personality, anger, and depression has been well established. But little was known about the cardiovascular risks of people suffering from chronic worry and anxiety until the findings from a long-term study were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology

Using data from the U.S. Normative Aging Study, researchers examined the responses of 735 middle-aged or elderly men who were in good cardiovascular health to a series of questions on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (a commonly used personality test).

The answers were scored on four anxiety scales that measured

  • obsessive thoughts
  • introversion and social withdrawal
  • phobias
  • and a predisposition to becoming tense or having a physical reaction such as nausea to a stressful situation.

The men who scored highest on the four scales of anxiety were far more likely—between 30 percent and 40 percent—to have a heart attack later in life than their less anxious counterparts.

A more recent Danish study of people with established heart disease and anxiety disorders showed similar results. Those researchers followed over 1,000 men and women with stable coronary disease who were assessed for an anxiety disorder at the start of the study and then followed for nearly six years.

During that time, there were 371 heart attacks or other coronary events. After adjusting for such factors as other health problems, heart disease severity, and medication use, the researchers found that generalized anxiety disorder was associated with a 74 percent increased risk of cardiovascular events.

Although the exact connection between increased episodes of heart problems and anxiety is unclear, some researchers think it may be linked with surges in the "fight or flight" hormones. More research will be needed to fully understand the impact of anxiety disorders on heart disease and then develop appropriate approaches to patient care.

Overcoming Anxiety

If you're troubled by anxious feelings or experience panic attacks (shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating), talk to your doctor about the best course of action for you. And rest assured that these conditions can often be successfully treated with self-help strategies, including:

  • Learning how to control your breathing
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • Avoiding smoking and caffeine, which can provoke panic attacks
  • Engaging in a series of therapy sessions and/or taking medication can also help control symptoms.

You and your doctor can determine the most effective treatment for you.