The Link Between Emotional Stress and Heart Damage

Stressed woman looking at computer screen

Most physicians are now convinced that emotional stress, under certain circumstances, can play a role in the development of chronic heart disease, and even in the precipitation of acute cardiac crises. 

Chronic emotional stress can increase your cardiac risk both by directly producing unfavorable changes to your blood vessels, and by contributing to a worsening of your more “standard” cardiac risk factors, such as overeating, reducing your likelihood of getting enough exercise, and increasing your likelihood of smoking.

Read about how emotional stress can lead to different kinds of heart disease.

Not all emotional stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. Some people seem to thrive on stress of all types; others have severe emotional reactions to stressful situations that many would find trivial. The propensity of stress to cause heart problems depends on what type of stress you are experiencing, and how you “handle” it.

Read about the kinds of stress that cause heart disease and who is affected.

If you are experiencing certain types of emotional stress and are reacting to it negatively, you should be concerned about preventing stress-related heart problems.

Preventing Stress-Related Heart Disease

While it is neither possible nor even desirable to prevent all forms of emotional stress, there are still many things you can do to reduce the likelihood that stress will cause cardiovascular problems. 

First, try to identify any specific situations in your life that cause you to experience particularly severe stress, and avoid, alter or limit those situations as much as is feasible.

Second, learn some effective stress management techniques. Stress management programs can help you learn to avoid unnecessary situations that produce unhealthy stress, to alter your perception of common stressful situations, and to help you reduce your physical reaction to a stressful event.

Often, the most useful part of a stress management program is to help you learn to react in a more health manner to common emotional stress.

This is particularly important, since it's our reaction to stress that is usually the most important factor in determining whether stress is increasing our cardiac risk. Essentially, by learn how to respond to stressful situations, our fight-or-flight adrenaline surge is not automatically engaged at the first sign of trouble. Many stress management programs have demonstrated measurable success in accomplishing this end.

Stress management programs often include training with breathing exercises, stretching exercises, aerobic exercises, visualization techniques, yoga, meditation, and/or massage. All of these programs aim toward the same goal—to blunt the adrenaline response to minor stresses. If you explore all the options, you are sure to find one or two stress management approaches that will suit you. Take this step seriously and make it a priority. 

Learn more about stress.

Third, pay close attention to all of your cardiac risk factors, and do whatever you can to control your cardiac risk.

And fourth, use your doctor as a resource for suggestions on stress management and overall risk factor control. You may also want to discuss with your doctor whether you should take prophylactic aspirin, which has been shown to reduce the risk of plaque rupture in people with significant emotional stress.


Blumenthal JA, Sherwood A, Babyak MA, et al. Effects of Exercise and Stress Management Training on Markers of Cardiovascular Risk in Patients with Ischemic Heart Disease: a Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA; 293:1626.

Denollet, J, Brutsaert, DL. Reducing Emotional Distress Improves Prognosis in Coronary Heart Disease: 9-year Mortality in a Clinical Trial of Rehabilitation. Circulation; 104:2018.

Friedman, M, Breall, WS, Goodwin, ML, et al. Effect of Type A Behavioral Counseling on the Frequency of Episodes of Silent Myocardial Ischemia in Coronary Patients. Am Heart J; 132:933.

Wei J, Rooks C, Ramadan R, et al. Meta-analysis of Mental Stress-induced Myocardial Ischemia and Subsequent Cardiac Events in Patients with Coronary Artery Disease. Am J Cardiol 2014; 114:187.