Why Stress Can Kill You: A Cardiologist Explains
As I rushed into the Emergency Center to treat what the ER doc had texted was “a lady with a friggin’ big heart attack,” I was surprised to see a nicely dressed woman sobbing quietly, but not in as much distress as I usually encountered in this setting.
I had already reviewed her EKG, which had been sent to my smart phone, and she had classic signs of a serious heart attack. As the team rushed her to the examination room, she told me that she had been at an AA meeting with her daughter who had recently shared a long history of alcoholism.
During the meeting, the stress and shame she felt as a failed mother was so intense that she began to feel horrible chest pressure. In the next ten minutes, I performed a procedure that showed that she had normal heart arteries, unusual for a heart attack, but she had a lot of damage to the heart muscle.
Fortunately, with proper medication, nutrition, and vitamin support, she completely recovered her heart strength within four weeks and is doing fine.
She demonstrated however one of the most convincing arguments that stress can cause dis-ease, even acute illness. Her problem is referred to as the “broken heart syndrome” and almost always manifests in women with some extreme psychological distress. Some patients even experience the “broken heart syndrome” more than once and need to focus on anger and stress management long term.
Stress as a contributor to heart disease has been accepted by the medical community at least since the 1970s with the publication of the book Type A Behavior and Your Heart by Drs. Friedman and Rosenman.
Since then, factors such as low self-esteem, low socioeconomic status, inadequate social support, anger, hostility, and hopelessness have all been identified as causes of disease.
Stress may translate to dis-ease by altering the sympathetic nervous system (elevated adrenaline), the adrenal axis (elevated cortisol that may transition to decreased cortisol and adrenal fatigue), inflammation, blood vessel malfunction, and increased clotting of the blood.
If stress can harm the heart, is the opposite true?
Fortunately we now have ample evidence that methods of avoiding or decreasing stress promote cardiovascular health and wellness. Breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, socialization, Qi-gong and Tai-Chi are just a few of the methods that have been proven to enhance quantity of life by managing stress.
In yoga, we are often encouraged to listen to our body. For your health, add to this listening to your mind and heart and search for the control that can keep your spirit calm. As the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
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