​Can stress cause a stroke? Links, lifestyle and new research

Medic with a stethoscope

Can stress cause a stroke or heart attack?

Yes, it can. But it is probably not going to be quite as dramatic as you might imagine:

Stress and strokes have many factors in common. Most research in the past tied the lifestyle choices which stressed people tend to make with an increased risk of stroke.

But there is also recent research which seems to show that the way the brain manages stress may directly contribute to an increased risk of heart attacks...

Here we will look at both:

Stroke symptoms

Before we go any further, it is very important that if you think you or anyone you know is having a stroke, you perform the FAST test:

  • Face – can the person smile without one side of their face drooping?
  • Arms – can they raise both arms without one drifting downwards?
  • Speech – can they repeat a single phrase without slurring?
  • Time – if the answer to these questions is no, call the emergency services NOW.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at the links between stress and heart attacks...

Stressed Businesswoman

What is stress?

The stress response is your body's natural reaction to dangerous situations called stressors.

Your body essentially ratchets up your body into a state where you have increased physical ability.

It does this by releasing a number of hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones do things like:

  • Boost your heart rate
  • Narrow your blood vessels (so your blood gets to your muscles faster)
  • Increase your reaction time

It is all designed to let you survive a stressful situation. The age-old example is to escape a predator. A more modern version might be to quickly step back when you see a car about to run you over.

In any case, usually the stress response – sometimes called the “fight or flight response” – is a good thing. It helps you survive.

Unfortunately, there are many times in the modern world where the stress response is triggered unnecessarily or in situations where it is not helpful.

Can stress cause a stroke or heart attack?

The answer is a little more complicated than you might think...

Your risk of suffering a stroke is governed by many factors, including:

  • The amount you exercise
  • How well you eat
  • Your family vascular disease history
  • Your weight or body fat levels
  • Your standard blood pressure
  • A variety of other factors, such as whether you smoke tobacco

If you are at high risk of suffering a stroke, stress can definitely act as the straw which broke the camel's back.

Equally, if you are at low risk of a stroke – if you have no family history of it, you eat well and exercise regularly, for example – bursts of high stress should not increase your risk of suffering one.

However, the lifestyle links between stress and an increased risk of strokes are strong.

Man Smoking a cigarette

Links between stress and strokes: lifestyle

A person suffering from stress is more likely to make poorer lifestyle choices. These result in symptoms which can lead to a higher risk of heart attacks.

These symptoms include:

1) High blood pressure

The hormones which are released as part of the stress response include cortisol. This hormone is designed to increase your blood pressure.

This can be a good thing in an emergency situation. But it is a bad thing if it is triggered too often. This is thought to be because of the sudden spike in blood pressure which stress can cause has the same weakening effect on the walls of your blood vessels as long-term hypertension might.

If you already have high blood pressure, the addition of stress's own blood pressure-heightening effects is very dangerous indeed.

2) High cholesterol, obesity and diabetes

A bad diet is often an effect of long-term stress. People suffering from stress may eat poorly and commonly over or under-eat.

On top of this, blood sugar levels tend to increase during times of stress and the amount of sleep you get tends to be reduced. Diabetes or high cholesterol can be the result. These are huge stroke risk factors.

3) Smoking and drinking alcohol

Drinking and smoking are coping mechanisms which many people resort to when they are feeling stressed. Unfortunately, they are also major stroke risk factors.

4) Heart disease and artery disease (atherosclerosis)

Stress and heart disease potentially have many ties. A weakening of the blood vessel walls and heart can be a result of stress hormones often being present.

Young woman crying on couch

Can emotional stress cause a stroke?

All types of stress may lead to lifestyle factors which can increase your risk of suffering from a stroke.

But in addition to this, recent research from Harvard University seems to show that there could be a link between how your brain handles stress and the likelihood of vascular problems too:

The researchers discovered that stress appears to cause your amygdala – the part of your brain which processes stress and emotions – to produce additional white blood cells. In turn, these inflame your arteries. This is a known part of the process which results in heart attacks and strokes.

This might be the way in which any kind of stress, including emotional stress, could lead to a heart attack.

The research – which consisted of two linked studies – did only consist of 293 people though. Only 22 of whom experienced heart-related problems afterwards. That is a pretty small sample.

Yet it is very interesting nonetheless.

Can stress cause stroke-like symptoms?

There are some physical symptoms of stress which are similar to those which might be experienced by someone suffering from a stroke. These might include:

  • Headaches (although the severity of a headache caused by a stroke is likely to be immeasurably greater, while a stress or tension headache is duller)
  • Difficulty swallowing (also known as dysphagia)
  • Changes in vision or speech
  • High blood pressure (which can also cause headaches, feelings of weakness and problems with vision)
Woman practising yoga

How to reduce your risk of a stress-related heart attack

When it comes to stroke causes and prevention, improving your lifestyle is a great way to start.

Once you have acknowledged that you have a problem with stress, there are some simple steps you can take to start to fight it:

  • 1. Agree to do less: one thing which stressed and depressed people often have in common is that they will agree to take on too much. This leaves them with no time to relax, no time to get exercise or to recover from whatever is causing the stress.
  • 2. Eat better, drink less alcohol and don't smoke: these are all sensible measures.
  • 3. Do a little more exercise: even something as little as three to five bursts of thirty minutes of exercise per week will have a seriously positive effect on your health and your stress levels.

Going beyond this, there are certainly more things you could be doing:

  • 1. Start yoga, meditation or tai chi: trying to give your mind and body enough time to relax and unwind can be achieved through activities like yoga, tai chi and mindfulness.
  • 2. Talking to a friend or your doctor: talking about the way you feel is often a great step in the right direction.
  • 3. Experiment with stress relief tools: there is a range of gadgets on the market which can help you to relieve stress. These range from soothing audio recordings to guided meditation devices through to vibrating bands meant to be placed on pressure points.

Whatever you choose though, the most important thing to do is to take that first step and start to tackle it.

Because you only need to worry if stress can cause a stroke if you are suffering from stress in the first place.

Henry Warren I am a professional writer and health & wellness enthusiast.