The effects of stress on your heart

Practice Management
Practice Management
  • Updated

Stress, whether work-related, financial, or emotional can lead to ill health. A little stress is good for you as it motivates you to perform, too much stress can be detrimental to your health as you will discover in this article.

What is stress?

Stress is essentially a hormonal response. When you feel stressed, you release the stress hormone, cortisol. This is the hormone that governs your flight and fight response, it is essential for living – but too much of it can be damaging. When faced with something threatening, your body responds with what you may know as the ‘fight or flight’ response: a rapid change in heart rate caused by adrenaline coursing through your body preparing you to fight, or run, for your life.

Stress is recognised by your brain and triggers a signal in your nervous system to encourage your body to make more white blood cells. Historically, this response prepared you to fight off infections in wounds from dangerous animals, when encounters in the wild were a part of everyday life. However, when it is caused by modern day stress, in the absence of that lion or bear, you simply increase the number of cells that make your body inflamed. The white blood cells born of stress may also be more inflammatory than usual, and bad at receiving anti-inflammatory signals that naturally hold your white blood cells in check. Too many angry white blood cells circulating in your blood vessels can contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack as well as an increase or decrease in appetite.


Stress can also cause you to lose sleep, which in turn can make you less focused and may lead to accidents or injury due to fatigue. It can affect your mood, with possible knock-on effects to your diet, relationships and work performance. When immune cells (white) ignore the calming effect of cortisol (in blue), they release inflammatory molecules like cytokines (in orange) and contribute to blood vessel inflammation.

Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’ regulating your body’s stress response. During times of stress your body releases cortisol, releasing its ‘fight or flight’ hormones such as adrenaline, keeping you on high alert. Cortisol also triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from your liver for fast energy during stress. In short spurts cortisol can boost your energy. However, if you have consistently high levels of cortisol in your blood, it can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system as well as the conditions mentioned earlier. You can combat this with another hormone, oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone that you get from hugs and human contact. It's the one that makes you more compassionate. It helps you notice if someone is struggling and makes you want to help, and it helps you recognise who to be around when you are in need of help. This hormone is released after delivery of a baby and is supposed to help with the bonding of a mother and her baby. Oxytocin is also a natural anti-inflammatory. The heart has receptors for oxytocin, which can help it heal itself from damaging stress. Your body has its own built-in mechanism for stress resilience – when you reach out under stress, you release more oxytocin and your stress response becomes better. We are all affected differently by stress.

Resilience, life experience, your own internal genetic make-up and your individual mental health are contributing factors. Each person has different ways to cope with stress, emotionally and psychologically. But where there is stress there is hope. The other side of stress is that it can give you the strength to be, and do, things that you never thought imaginable. When you experience positive stress, your blood vessels remain open, similar to when you feel joy or courage.

Managing stress

Here are some ways of reducing stress:

  • Exercise whether indoors or outdoors.
  • Meditation • Yoga • Nature – getting out in nature helps ground you and connect to your natural state. Be aware of the trees, flowers and animals around you.
  • Work stress - step away from the computer, take a break. If it gets overwhelming take a break outside.
  • Identify and spend time with the people that help you grow and feel good.
  • Journaling – let your pen flow without editing what you write. Always end off with something positive and something that you are grateful for.
  • Work on changing your perspective on things that may be giving you stress but which you cannot change. Change your perspective by focusing on what is going right in your situation.
  • Nutrition – ensure you eat healthy foods and minimise your sugar intake. Sugar makes you more lethargic and affects your mood. Prioritise your wellbeing before life forces you to change.

Yocheved Levin is a Sleep, Trauma, Anxiety and Bereavement Specialist, fully qualified and experienced Hypnotherapist and Mindset Coach working locally and internationally changing lives.

Yocheved can be contacted HERE.

If you would like help changing from a worrier to a warrior contact Yocheved.

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