It all starts in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, which reacts to stress by activating what is known as the fight-or-flight response and triggering the release of hormones that can increase body fat levels, blood pressure and insulin resistance over time. In addition, as the team explained, the cascade of stress responses leads to inflammation in the arteries, promotes blood clotting, and impairs blood vessel function, all of which contribute to atherosclerosis, the arterial disease that underlies most heart attacks and strokes.
Dr. Tawakol explained that modern neuroimaging made it possible to directly measure the effects of stress on various body tissues, including the brain. An earlier study of 293 people who were initially free of cardiovascular disease and who underwent full-body scans that included brain activity had an illuminating result. Five years later, people who were found to have high activity in the amygdala were found to have higher levels of inflammation and atherosclerosis.
Translation: Those with elevated levels of emotional stress developed biological evidence of cardiovascular disease. In contrast, said Dr. Osborne, “people who aren’t hardwired” are less likely to experience the heart disease effects of stress.
The researchers are now investigating the effects of a stress-reducing program called SMART-3RP (it stands for Stress Management and Resiliency Training-Relaxation Response Resiliency Program) on the brain and biological factors that promote atherosclerosis. The program is designed to help people reduce stress and build resilience through mind-body techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and tai chi. Such measures activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the brain and body.
Defuse stress and its effects
Even without a formal program, said Dr. Osborne, individuals could minimize their body’s heart-damaging responses to stress. One of the best options is to get regular exercise, which can help reduce stress and the body-wide inflammation it can cause.
Because poor sleep increases stress and promotes arterial inflammation, developing good sleep habits can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular damage. Adopt a consistent bedtime and wake-up pattern, and avoid exposure to or use blue light filters on screens that emit blue light, such as smartphones and computers, before bed.
Practice relaxing activities like mindfulness meditation, calming techniques that slow your breathing, yoga, and tai chi.