When it comes to your heart health, you’ve probably heard the usual advice: Lay off tobacco; load your plate with produce, whole grains, and lean proteins; and move your body regularly. Those seemingly simple things aren’t always easy—you deserve props if you did some (or even one) of them today.
Seriously, that last part is important: Try not to beat yourself up. If you’re regularly fretting about your health—or anything, for that matter—you could be doing your heart a big deal of damage, Icilma Fergus, MD, a cardiologist and director of cardiovascular disparities at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, tells SELF. She explains that long-term stress has the potential to wreak havoc on your blood pressure, blood sugar, and low-density lipoprotein (a.k.a. the “bad” kind of cholesterol levels.)1,2
Even if you otherwise do everything “right” for your heart, prolonged stress has the nasty potential to undo all that work, Dr. Fergus says. “If you have a great deal of stressors, that just sets things off. Everything goes up. It’s all impacted by stress.”
When you’re tense, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can temporarily sharpen your senses and boost your energy.3 (This comes in handy when a speeding car or prehistoric-looking bug rushes out in front of you, for example.) But if you’re pumping out those chemicals all day every day, your cardiovascular system is going to take a hit. Case in point: In a 2017 study, 293 people without any cardiovascular disease had their brains scanned after a five-year period. Researchers found that those who had more activity in their amygdala—a part of the brain involved with stress—were more likely to have thicker, more hardened arteries: an issue that can lead to heart disease.4 For those who already have an underlying heart condition, another study found that emotional stress (like losing a loved one or grappling with work deadlines, for example), versus physical stress (like smoking), is often a bigger predictor of whether they’ll have a heart attack or eventually die from cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and heart failure.5
And not everyone is subject to stress to the same extent: Black and Latinx people in the US tend to experience greater levels of stress than white people do, which often stems from a systematic lack of social and economic support, as well as feeling unsafe, physically and materially, as a result of persistent racial discrimination—both in health care settings and in general (as a report from the American Psychological Association notes).6 “Based on the circumstances that some Black and Hispanic people live in, they have a higher baseline of stress, and that contributes to more risk factors, especially hypertension, that increase the risk for heart disease,” Dr. Fergus says.