More people than ever are asking: is anxiety bad for my heart? There’s no doubt about it—questions and searches on stress and anxiety are higher than ever, and so are new symptoms. If you’re struggling with or wondering about new or worsening anxiety right now, you’re not alone. From August 2020 to February 2021, there was a significant increase in adults reporting symptoms.
Common symptoms and signs of anxiety
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Having some anxiety from time is time is 100% normal and not something to worry about. But if you’re not coming down from your anxiety or it’s putting a hurt on your ability to get through everyday life, it’s a problem that needs addressing (more on that later on).
What anxiety looks like in one person can be different from what it looks like in someone else. But some common symptoms we associate with anxiety include:
- An inability to put your worry aside to focus on a task or what’s right in front of you
- Avoiding situations or people you’d ordinarily be happy to see
- Being unable to shake off feelings that something’s really wrong (even when something’s not really dangerous)
- Fatigue, weakness, nervousness
- Muscle tension
- Insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Excess sweating
- Rapid heart rate and chest pain
- Shallow, fast breathing but feeling like you can’t get air
- Stomach pain and bowel movement changes
Why anxiety has such an effect on the body
Anxiety isn’t just a feeling. Along with psychological stress, it also puts you in a state of physical stress. As a result, a lot of changes actually occur in your body. In response to anxiety, part of your brain (the hypothalamus) signals for increased production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
Commonly called “stress hormones,” adrenaline and cortisol are essential to our survival. Cortisol slows down almost all body functions while allowing more sugar to enter your bloodstream. To get glucose where it needs to go—and fast—your heart rate rises, your blood vessels constrict, and your blood pressure goes up. Your brain and other cells then can tap into this rush of excess glucose and get you through a fight-or-flight event.
When the threat (or anxiety) subsides, your body reverts levels back to normal. But what happens with chronic anxiety? Because the body is constantly in stressed-out mode, cortisol, glucose, and blood pressure all stay high. Unfortunately, with chronic unaddressed anxiety, no system of your body gets through unscathed. A perpetual overactive stress response continues to send signals to keep non-essential systems to fight-or-flight sluggish (like your digestive system). Meanwhile, others, like your cardiovascular system, get the message to remain on high alert.
The answer to: is anxiety bad for my heart?
The last thing we want is to create added worry about how anxiety affects your heart. There’s no need to panic about your heart right away. But there is reason to take action and speak with your physician about your anxiety soon. Not addressing long-term issues with anxiety can eventually become a problem and be bad for your heart health.
If you think back to the body’s physiological response in the previous section, your cardiovascular system stays overactive in situations of chronic stress and anxiety. That causes your heart rate to pick up and sometimes elevated—and, in some people, that change is dramatic. At the same time, cortisol causes narrowing of your blood vessels. Together, those two factors play a role in hypertension (or high blood pressure). While all this is happening, perpetually high cortisol eventually begins to cause ongoing high blood sugar and too much inflammation.
Hypertension and increased blood sugar and inflammation are harmful to your heart health. They all contribute to the development of heart disease. Over time, all of these factors make arteries less elastic and more susceptible to plaque buildup. As arteries develop more and more plaque, less blood flow and oxygen can through to your heart and the rest of your body. At the same time, increased blood sugar begins to damage blood vessels and nerves that are essential to heart function.
Chest pains, anxiety and your heart
Particularly for those with existing heart disease, anxiety raises your risk for heart attacks and complications from heart attacks. But because chest pains are a symptom of heart attacks and also anxiety, many people are left wondering: how can I tell the difference between anxiety chest pain and a heart attack?
First, don’t play a “wait-and-see” game with chest pain. If you are having chest pain, check in with your physician. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911. That said, heart attacks and chest pain from anxiety are often different. Many times, chest pain from anxiety comes on very suddenly, feels incredibly sharp, and fades quickly. It also feels very localized. On the other hand, pain from heart attacks usually (but not always) feels more dull—people often describe it as pressure and squeezing. Unlike anxiety-induced chest pain, it may radiate and even be felt in the shoulders or back.
Living with anxiety—and still taking care of your body and heart
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million Americans, and they affect your mental and emotional health, physical health, and quality of life. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, but the good news is: they’re very treatable. Medications, as well as talk therapy with a licensed mental health provider, can give you the tools to manage your anxiety and its effects on your work and home life and self-esteem. At-home measures, like keeping up with friends, hydrating, meditation, yoga, focused breathing, and journaling help too.
While our society still doesn’t do a good job of normalizing mental health, it’s so important to not let stigmas prevent you from seeking care. Start with your primary care physician. Be open, honest, and specific about how anxiety is affecting you.
There are also some really simple steps you can take to help protect your heart, even if you have chronic anxiety. Studies have shown that many people with anxiety have low levels of omega-3s. Ask your healthcare provider if it’s okay for you to supplement—and how much you need. You can also eat a well-rounded diet that emphasizes fibrous fruits and vegetables and whole grains, as well as lean protein. Be sure to limit the amount of saturated and trans fat you get—and get moving by going for a 30-minute walk every day. One thing we really can’t stress enough: if you’re due for a physical with your primary care physician, schedule it. They can discuss specific changes based on your medical history and also order labs to check cholesterol, triglycerides, and other important health markers.