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When someone startles us, we might say, "You almost gave me a heart attack!" But how often do we level the same accusation against deadlines, traffic or other everyday aggravations? Most of us don't realize how taxing chronic stress can be on the body and what a damaging effect it can have on the heart.

How Tension Takes a Toll

Psychological stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This can cause your heart to race (feel that drumming in your chest?) and certain blood vessels throughout your body to constrict enough to raise your blood pressure. A jolt of adrenaline isn't necessarily a bad thing—it can help you rock a presentation or tear through a to-do list—but when you constantly feel under pressure, you and your heart never get a chance to relax. Stress hormones can also trigger an inflammatory response that leaves blood vessels more vulnerable to damage. The affected areas in turn make a home for plaque to form, which can lead to blockages—by plaque or blood clots—that can cause a stroke or a heart attack. Indeed, research has linked unrelenting stress to an increased risk of heart attack and of impaired overall functioning of the heart.