One could argue that stress is bad and feel intuitively that it must be harmful to health. Then again, human beings have always been subject to stress. We evolved under stress that must have far exceeded the levels most of us face as urban workers.

However, the type of mental stress we face as office warriors is of a different flavor than the physical stress our ancestors faced when they fought for survival. This suggests that our bodies may not be best suited for the type of stress we deal with now, and the maladaptive result may show up as disease.

What damage does stress do?

Scientific evidence indicates that mental stress can adversely affect the cardiovascular system. Tasks like complex mental arithmetic and public speaking can produce anxiety in almost anyone. They can lead to surges in heart rate and blood pressure.

Stressful tasks can cause an actual decrease in blood flow to the heart, mimicking what happens during a heart attack, though to a lesser extent. Studies by cardiologists have documented reductions in blood flow in response to stressful situations. The decrease in coronary blood flow that occurs with mental stress can be as great as with physical exertion.

In patients who already have coronary artery disease, these effects can be problematic, but fortunately can be blunted by cardiac medications. Beta-blockers, for example, can keep the heart rate from rising excessively.

But might the cumulative effects of stressors lead to heart damage in people who don’t have heart disease? Here the answer is not as clear. Probably in someone who is young and healthy, the effects will be minimal. However, in people with a predisposition to heart disease, the additional burden that stress places on the heart could, in extreme circumstances, precipitate heart attacks.

How can we stop stress damaging our heart?

Avoiding stress and stressful situations is one answer. Obviously, this is impractical for most of us. However, calming activities like prayer or meditation may help. And exercise can play a large role in relieving stress, as well as in maintaining cardiac and general health. Enjoying the company of a partner, colleagues, friends and even pets seems to bring about beneficial effects on cardiovascular, as well as overall, health.