How anxiety impacts your heart health
Anxiety is the feeling of worry, queasiness, and unease we’ve all felt at one point during our lives. But what if you’re part of the approximately 5-10% of the population that lives with anxiety disorder? What affect will that have on your heart health?
While some of the most common complications of having an anxiety disorder are co-occurring substance abuse, or the development of depression, generalized anxiety disorder is also associated with poor cardiovascular health and coronary heart disease, as well as mortality. Anxiety disorders typically result from multiple and uncontrollable worries, which often change over time, though the common worries are typically about the future welfare of one’s family, money or health. Isn’t it then ironic that to worry excessively about one’s health, is detrimental to one’s health?
As humans, we’ve been pre-programmed with a sympathetic nervous system to help us react in high danger situations appropriately. If you’re running away from a bear, you’ll want your heart rate to be increased to be able to supply sufficient blood flow to your muscles. But what if you’re worrying sitting on the couch, and all that worry has no place to escape? Anxiety disorders cause a dramatic increase in your heart rate during situations that are not a fight or flight scenario and can lead to poorer cardiovascular health in previously healthy people.
A recent meta-analysis looking at over 250,000 patients showed that in patients without previous heart disease, who suffered from anxiety disorders experienced a 26% increased risk of incident Coronary Artery Disease. In other words, a healthy individual with no history of heart problems became much more at risk for early signs of a heart attack, due to issues with anxiety.
One can also argue that worry may be beneficial for health promotion, but no studies so far have shown that such worry would have any benefits for health. Which brings out the perennial chicken or egg question. Does excessive worry lead to poorer cardiovascular health by and in itself, or do patients in already poorer health worry about their cardiovascular health excessively? Multiple studies have shown that in patients who have had an acute heart attack poorer outcomes were associated with additional worry or anxiety. Increased anxiety was also found to be an independent predictor of cardiac complications in other studies.
So why worry? While worrying may be actively helpful in intense situations, it’ll do you no good when it comes to your health, particularly cardiac health. You should try different methods and tools to help keep you calm and to encourage a positive mental attitude.
If you are experiencing anxiety that is prolonged, which you are unable to manage on your own, it is best to speak to your doctor about treatment options. Many people have found ways to cope with their anxiety through holistic or therapeutic methods, and some with medication. This is especially important if you already have heart issues or a family history of heart problems. It is important to make your heart health, as well as your mental health, a priority to ensure a long, happy life.
Dr. Erdik specializes in cardiology and internal medicine, and is often found consulting on hospital issues. In his spare time he works as a medical expert for Addictions.com, a site dedicated to helping remove the stigmas surrounding substance use disorders, and mental disorders, where he reviews content for medical accuracy, and writes guest blogs.