Effect of Stress on the Circulatory System

Lesson objective:

How do chronic stress and trauma relate to our cardiovascular health?

As mentioned, we’re going to start our exploration of the effects of chronic stress with the physical body.

The brain and body are closely related and are in constant communication. 

We use our interoceptive skills to tune in to that communication and get a sense of how we are feeling, how we might have adapted or adjusted in response to stress.  

One of the primary targets of chronic stress is the cardiovascular system, which includes your heart and blood vessels.

We previously discussed two specific hormones in the stress response: cortisol and adrenaline, both produced and released by the adrenal cortex. 

While both of these hormones play necessary and healthy functions, they can have a harmful effect on the heart if they are being released constantly.

In the presence of stress, in order to fight or flee, muscles need more oxygen. So, as part of the stress response, adrenaline and cortisol signal an increase in oxygen demand and cause your heart rate to increase.

If this stress response is left on, the overproduction of these hormones can cause spasms of the coronary blood vessels, as well as electrical instability in the heart’s conduction system.

Those living under chronic stress may be experiencing hyperarousal, and in that sense, they may run the risk of an abnormally continuous increased heart rate as well as electrical incongruencies in the system. 

 

Ultimately, the imbalance in demand on the heart may cause increased blood pressure and, over time, the effects of chronic stress may exhaust the muscle and blood vessels.

 

The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure can take a toll across the body. 

   Long-term, ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attacks, or strokes. 

Additionally, chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in blood vessels and glands, particularly in the coronary arteries, which are the main pathways that tie stress to heart attacks.