Stress, the Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke
Stress has enormous implications for our health, and from an evolutionary perspective, the stress response is a lifesaving biological function that enables us to confront an assailant, run away from a predator or take down an animal to cook and eat.
Now, we are living in a modern world and are activating this same biological reaction in response to activities and events that have no life-threatening implications.
The vast number of stress-inducing situations facing us daily can make it difficult to turn the stress response off, and holding on to stress hormones around the clock can have very serious consequences for our health.
Fat accumulation, high blood pressure and heart attack are just a few of the many health consequences associated with chronic stress.
Acute stress can have potentially lethal consequences.
The preponderance of evidence show that stress impacts our health. And, since the Heart & Mind are interlinked, our mental state can have a particularly significant influence on your heart health.
According to recent research, stress increases your risk of heart attack and stroke by causing over activity in your amygdala.
Known as your brain’s fear center located in our temporal lobe, is activated in response to both real and perceived threats.
Other recent research suggests the amygdala is involved in the processing of other emotions, including positive ones, as well as the processing of emotional memories of all kinds.
Still, its involvement in fear and threat detection is well-established, and 1 of its most basic jobs is to keep us safe by bio-chemically preparing you to flee of fight as needed.
In this study, inflammation levels as well as brain and bone marrow activity of 293 participants were measured. All of the participants were over the age of 30, and none had a diagnosed heart problem.
By the end of the observation period, which lasted between 2 and 5 years, 22 participants had experienced a serious cardiac event such as heart attack, stroke or angina, aka chest pain.
Based on brain scans, the researchers were able to conclude that those with higher activity in the amygdala were at an elevated risk of a cardiac event.
As it turned out, there appears to be a significant correlation between amygdala activity and arterial inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
This was confirmed in another much smaller sub-study involving those with a history of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Here, levels of C-reactive protein were also measured, showing that those reporting the highest stress levels also had the highest amygdala activity and higher levels of inflammatory markers.
Stress can also promote or trigger a heart attack in other ways too.
Studies have shown that as your stress level rises, so do your level of disease-promoting white blood cells, and this is yet another way by which stress can lead to atherosclerosis, plaque rupture and myocardial infarction.
During moments of high stress the human body releases norepinephrine, which researchers claim can cause the dispersal of bacterial bio-films from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, thereby triggering a heart attack.
A sudden release of large amounts of stress hormones and rapid elevations in blood pressure may even trigger a heart attack or stroke even one does not have a heart problem.
Adrenaline increases our blood pressure and heart rate, and it has been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.
While most will successfully recover, in some, the change of shape of the left ventricle can trigger a fatal heart attack. Having a history of neurological problems, such as seizure disorders, and/or a history of mental health problems is thought to raise the risk.
On the upside
While the condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, it is usually a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.
Knowing the amygdala’s role in inflammation and heart attacks, it seems reasonable to conclude that part of the answer is learning to reduce the activity in your amygdala.
When our amygdala is triggered by a real or perceived threat, oxygen is shunted from your internal organs, including your brain, to the extremities.
As our body is prepared for fighting, not thinking, muscle function takes precedence.
Notably, in today’s world, critical thinking is really what is required when facing a stressful situation.
- Bring oxygen back to the brain. Simply breathe in to a count of 4; hold the breath for another count of 4; breathe out to the count ofn4 ; and hold again for a count of 4. I do it 10X and the result is calmness, and my bind cleared of “monkey thoughts”
There are many very good breathing techniques out there that will likely help. You may want to experiment with a few different ones to see if one works better than another.
Another one I like is the 4-7-8 taught by Dr. Andrew Weil, as follows:
- Sit up straight and place the tip of your tongue up against the roof or your mouth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
- Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of 4, hold your breath to the count of 7 and exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making an audible whoosh sound. That completes 1 full breath
- Repeat the cycle another 3X, for a total of 4 breaths. After the 1st month, you can work your way up to a total of 8 to 10 breaths per session
Another method is the controlled breathing method taught by Patrick McKeown, one of the top teachers of the Buteyko Breathing Method.
When experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or feeling very stressed and your mind cannot stop racing, try the following breathing sequence.
Its effectiveness stems from the fact that it helps retain and gently accumulate CO2 (carbon dioxide). This not only helps calm our breathing but also reduces anxiety.
Notably, the urge to breathe will decline as you go into a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
- Hold your nose for 5 secs in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
- Breathe normally for 10 secs
- Repeat the sequence several more times
There’s no shortage of evidence showing that stress impacts our health. And, since our Heart & Minds are interlinked, our mental state can have a particularly significant influence on our heart health.
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Exercise and Breathe
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