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Stress and the Psychology of Heart Health

By Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS

Stress Kills

Most of us accept stress as a necessary evil that is
a part of the American lifestyle. But living under stress day in and day out can lead to heart disease. According to the American Psychological Association, prolonged stress can contribute to high blood pressure and circulatory problems, and if stress makes you angry and irritable, you are more likely to have heart disease or even a heart attack. The APA notes that stress may be a more important risk factor than smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. A 2013 study published in “ARYA Atherosclerosis” concluded that more attention must be paid to psychological factors that contribute to heart disease.

stressed woman

It’s In Our DNA

The way your body responds to stress is programmed into your animal DNA. When fear and anxiety are present, your immune system releases pro-inflammatory cytokines that lead to inflammation and the release of ghrelin, a stress hormone associated with unhealthy weight gain. In a 2014 review published in “Psychology Bulletin,” researchers explain that this biological inflammatory response to adversity may be critical for survival during times of actual physical threat or injury. But prolonged daily stress turns a temporary fight or flight response into a chronic condition that can lead to heart disease and depression.

stressed man

Lifestyle Hacks

When it comes to heart health, University of Wisconsin Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a psychologist who works with the Preventive Cardiology group, asserts, “We often think of exercise, nutrition and family history, but stress is equally important and sometimes underemphasized.” Regular daily exercise and a whole foods diet of fresh fruits and vegetables are important weapons in the war against stress. Yoga, meditation and other stress management strategies can also make a difference.

Happiness Heals

If fear and anxiety are the hallmarks of stress, happiness is its antithesis. People and circumstances cannot make you happy. You can only cultivate happiness within yourself, according to Amir Sood, MD, when you stop looking at the negative things in the world and begin to practice gratitude for what you have, and compassion for the pain of others. Says Dr. Sood, “The pursuit of gratitude and compassion will make you happier than the pursuit of happiness.” And happiness will soothe your heart.

happy girl


To learn more about stress management strategies, enroll in the WITS Lifestyle Fitness Coaching course, available online.

References and Credits

ARYA Atherosclerosis: Psychological Factors and Coronary Heart Disease


American Psychological Association: Mind/Body Health: Heart Disease


Amit Sood, MD: A Very Happy Brain


Psychology Bulletin:


Uniersity of Wisconsin Health: Health Psychology for Healthy Hearts


*Images courtesy of

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