Stress is the modern epidemic. The pace of modern life, social needs and those that we impose ourselves, generate a degree of tension and anxiety that, in the long term, is unsustainable and ends up presenting us a large bill to pay, even physically. In fact, always be in the fast lane of life is not a good idea, especially for the heart.
A longitudinal study on a large scale conducted by a team of cardiologists at the University of Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital, found that stress increases the risk of suffering a heart attack. Obviously, this is not the first research that gets these results, all the evidence suggests that stress can have fatal consequences. But this time the researchers studied the mechanism behind it to understand how stress can trigger a heart attack.
The fault lies with an overactive amygdala
The amygdala is a brain structure that is connected to the emotional functioning. In fact, we can say that is the command center of fear in the brain. This almond-shaped structure that is located in the temporal lobe, is activated by fear, anxiety, stress and all those stimuli that may seem potentially dangerous.
When the amygdala is working properly protects us from stress because is not active all the time, but only in cases when we’re really in danger, to keep us safe. But an overactive amygdala becomes an enemy because it triggers a series of physiological reactions in front of situations that are not really dangerous.
The amygdala can become overactive at any time of life, mainly due to stress maintained for a long period. In fact, it has been seen that children who are subjected to stress, such as separation of the parents or when are left to cry for long periods of time without meeting their needs, develop an overactive amygdala which remains such even in adulthood.
A fatal combination: an overactive amygdala and the excessive activity of the bone marrow
This new study revealed how an overactive amygdala can cause a heart attack or a stroke. In practice, the stress not only activates the amygdala, but also stimulates the functioning of the bone marrow and causes arterial inflammation, ideal conditions to produce a heart attack.
In the study took part 293 people over 30 years of age and with no previous heart problems. They have all been subjected to a series of tests to evaluate the level of inflammation of the arteries, the brain activity and the activity of the bone marrow.
The researchers followed them for four years, a period during which 22 of these people suffered particularly serious heart attacks. This is how they could see that those who showed an overactive amygdala at the beginning of the experiment were more likely to suffer a heart attack or serious heart problems.
The basic mechanism is the following: the amygdala is not able to distinguish between stimuli that are truly dangerous and those that we can manage with certain normality, thus it ends cataloging good the majority of everyday situations as dangerous. In this way, the stress increases and also increase the levels of cortisol, a hormone that causes inflammation. When this situation is maintained over time, the inflammatory process restricts and blocks the arteries, restricting the blood flow.
At the same time, the activity of the bone marrow has been linked to an increased risk of clots in the blood, another risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Therefore, it is a combination that can be fatal.
Can we re-educate the amygdala?
The good news is that emotional re-education can restore the proper functioning of the amygdala. In practice, the person must learn to distinguish consciously between dangerous stimuli and harmless ones.
The first step is to learn to recognize the triggers that indicate that the amygdala is overreacting, such as an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, tightness in the chest and the epigastric spasm. So you can use different techniques, from cognitive restructuring to modify the catastrophic thoughts that come to mind to diaphragmatic breathing or relaxation techniques.
Over time the amygdala will learn to distinguish those situations that are truly dangerous from those which, although can generate tension and are unsightly, are not.
Tawakol, A. et. Al. (2017) Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study. The Lancet; S0140-6736(16)31714-7.
Ressler, K. J. (2010) Amygdala Activity, Fear, and Anxiety: Modulation by Stress. Biol Psychiatry; 67(12): 1117–1119.