Several studies have found an increased risk of heart attack in people with anxiety. According to Harvard Health, in people with established heart disease, those who also had an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack. And the Nurse’s Health Study found that women with phobic anxiety were 59 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 31 percent more likely to die from one than women with the lowest anxiety levels.
Why anxiety increases the risk of heart disease
Anxiety is physically taxing on your body. Constant worrying and being on alert to perceived threats can increase both your heart rate and blood pressure — both of which can increase your risk of having a heart attack. This is especially true for people with existing heart conditions according to John Hopkins Medical Center.
The connection between anxiety and heart disease isn’t fully understood. Doctors at Harvard Medical School believe that some of the reasons why anxiety could contribute to heart problems include:
- Being in a state of anxiety causes surging levels of cortisol in the body, which can put a strain on the heart
- Prolonged states of fight-or-flight keep your body on full alert and can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and make your body work harder
- People with anxiety often have low levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which has been found to contribute to heart health
- People with anxiety might also have depression, which has been linked to heart disease
The negative impact of anxiety on cardiovascular disease recovery
Recovery from cardiovascular illness takes perseverance and commitment. You need to attend follow-up visits with your doctor, exercise, follow a healthy diet, and take medication if prescribed. As with other major illnesses, the support of family and friends is vital in your recovery.
Anxiety sometimes interferes with a patient’s ability to follow through on their health care. They might not stick to exercise programs, get the recommended amount of sleep each night, find it difficult to rest and avoid social situations, which can make them feel isolated and alone, according to Dr. Una McCann of John Hopkins Medical Center. Further, McCann explains that people who have a heart attack can have symptoms of PTSD, reliving the event, having recurring anxious thoughts that interfere with sleep and daily activities and hold a negative view of their future. All of this can hamper recovery from a cardiovascular event.
It is also sometimes difficult to know the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack. Many people are first diagnosed with anxiety when they seek medical help for chest pains, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or numbness in their hands and feet, which can all be symptoms of both a heart attack and anxiety. During the recovery stage, these symptoms might be mistaken for further heart problems, which deepens the anxiety, and in turn places stress on the heart. It can become a never-ending cycle.
It’s important to address anxiety issues as part of your overall cardiovascular care. Your cardiologist and mental health provider should work together to make sure both your heart condition and anxiety disorder are properly treated. According to Harvard Health, treating the anxiety can help in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.