Working Smarter

Is Stress Killing You? Work Stress Increases Risk of Heart Attack Even in Your Twenties

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out guy.jpg

IF THERE WAS A KILLER loose in your neighborhood, you would no doubt be doing everything possible to stay safe. Yet there’s a killer inside many of our bodies that we blithely ignore even though it cuts down more people each year than cancer and nicotine combined. It’s called stress. And it’s not your friend. It's a serial killer.

Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, calls stress “the new tobacco.” Like tobacco, it constricts arteries, but it does it much faster than smoking. Stress also kills people much more quickly than alcoholism, since the damage it wreaks on your cardiovascular system causes heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues than take you down swiftly in the prime of life.

And a major factor in those quick demises is job stress, something that can be managed by individuals and companies. It happened to an executive at a consulting firm where I led a work-life balance program. It came out that a colleague had a heart attack a few months earlier. This go-getter beloved by all was found dead on the bathroom floor of his hotel room on a business trip. He was only in his thirties. I've talked to people who have had stress-related heart attacks in their twenties.

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Impact of high blood pressure.


My friends, it’s time we got serious about stress and stress management. And by “we” I mean each of us taking stress as the threat it is and using strategies to combat it and organizations understanding the massive toll on personnel and bottom lines taken by chronic stress. Some 40% of employee turnover is due to stress. Meanwhile, the tab paid by American business due to employee stress—medical bills, recruiting, training, absenteeism—amounts to $407 billion per year, reports Peter Schnall, a clinical professor of medicine at U. C. Irvine and author of Unhealthy Work.

In a study that tracked subjects for 14 years, researchers at Columbia University found that people who feel anxious and overwhelmed are 27% more likely to have a heart attack. We will learn a few paragraphs down why that is. The scientists on this study said that stress is equivalent to smoking five packs of cigarettes per day.

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There are many reasons why stress in the workplace flies under the radar and we learn to just “take it.” There’s the fallacy that you have to be working at the threshold of pain to really be getting the job done, a myth in the knowledge economy, where productivity is all about the focused attention of the freshest brain. And there’s the belief that it’s weak to be seen as stressed, when stress is the result of an archaic brain not built for the social stress of the modern world. This comes from another fallacy, that "mental" problems are lightweight and shameful. Instant technology, leaner staffs, and a sped-up pace of work in a global marketplace have also contributed to the epidemic.

There are two main reasons, though, why stress flourishes: 1) We simply never get the information on how to prevent and contest stress. Why isn’t this taught from grade school on? How many more important things are there than how to manage our minds so that autopilot emotional reactions don’t turn on our ancient defense machinery for nothing and the physiological changes that wreak havoc on our bodies?

And 2) We can’t see stress or the damage it’s inflicting inside us. It’s the Invisible Epidemic. We don’t talk about it sometimes even with those closest to us. A social worker in Pittsburgh told me about how chronic stress from work overload touched off a nervous breakdown and hospitalization for her. She hadn’t even told her husband about the pressure that had driven her body to the brink.


I’m convinced that if we could get enough eyes and attention on what stress does specifically to our bodies and minds and the real effects it has on the physiology of real people, that we can get this topic out of the closet so it can be taken as seriously as diet in the scheme of major health issues from hypertension to diabetes and depression.

The path from the killer deadline or chronic time frenzy to high blood pressure and worse isn’t understood, so I’d like to kick off a conversation here and a hash tag, #stressiskillingus, to invite everyone to tell their job stress stories and spread awareness of the stress epidemic. What did work stress do to your health and life? Do you know people impacted by job stress? What drove the stress and what can be done about it? Let’s crowdsource some answers.


Plaque pinches blood flow.

To put some imagery behind the secret agent of stress, let’s start with the impact stress has on the cardiovascular system. The central problem with stress is that, if it goes off for a few minutes or an hour, that’s not a problem for your health. The danger from stress comes from having the stress response activated all day every day for days, weeks, months, or years because of chronic stress. This is because in the short-term interest of pushing blood to your arms and legs to fight or run from a threat to life and limb, your body has to do things that over a prolonged period subject your body to major health damage.


When the stress response is activated, one of the immediate effects is an increase in blood pressure. If the trigger driving the stress response isn’t turned off, then that blood will continue to rage through your system in what we know as hypertension, chronic high blood pressure. That causes damage down the line to an array of cardiovascular functions.

The blood doesn’t just move faster; it gushes like a flood, distending and ballooning blood vessels into fire hoses. If this goes on for a long period of time, arteries and veins suffer severe wear and tear. To manage the torrent, muscle tissue grows around the blood vessels, helping to regulate the extra load. In time, this muscle starts to tighten around the vessels, restricting the flow. This causes blood pressure to rise further to push blood through the narrower passages.

The force of the blood flow eventually takes a toll on your heart, as it plows into the heart muscle wall. In response to the repeated impacts, the heart muscle thickens, leading to left ventricle hypertrophy as one side of the heart is now larger than the other. This can cause an irregular heartbeat.

Meanwhile, within blood vessels, other hazards are developing. Like anything overused, the lining in the veins gets worn out and starts to break down in little crater-like spots. This activates immune cells to swarm in and cluster around the injured areas, as well as platelets that promote clotting. The stress response also cuts loose all the energetic resources in your body, from fat to the bad cholesterol, and they can contribute to clotting in blood vessels and the buildup of plaque that leads to atherosclerosis. Stress increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

Continued stress leads to more gushing of blood and damage inside the arteries, as pieces of plaque are ripped away and sent traveling through the system. If one of them clogs your coronary artery, it’s heart attack time.


This is but a small slice of what stress can do to us, if left unchallenged. That is what happens most of the time. While we hear constant advice on what foods to eat to avoid cardiovascular disease or diabetes, another condition stress can incite, we hear next to nothing about the much bigger role stress plays.

That’s why I hope you will send your stories to me, to or go to Twitter and post your comments to #stressiskillingus so we can do for stress what the anti-smoking movement did to dramatically cut the cost of another dangerous behavior. Awareness is the Neighborhood Watch that can help keep this killer out of our neighborhoods.

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Tags: stress management, work stress, job stress and heart attacks

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