A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Answering Your Questions About Stress and Heart Health

Posted November 10, 2015

In September, UVA Club Red hosted a “Lower Stress, Healthier You” workshop, where many of you had the opportunity to hear our experts discuss the impact of stress on our health. We got great feedback from the event and now we want to share some of the useful information we learned with all of you. Here are a few of the questions asked by our audience members and our experts’ responses. Stay tuned for more outtakes from the event coming soon!


Q: What does stress really feel like?

A: “When you perceive a threat, are concerned or fearful about something, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system as well as the adrenal glands. Both of these release hormones — epinephrine, norepinephrine — that will elevate the heart rate and blood pressure. You will actually feel the heart pounding. If you’ve ever had to slam on your car brakes to avoid an accident , you can really feel your heart pounding. That’s an acute stress episode where, after you realize you haven’t gotten into an accident, your heart rate comes down, your blood pressure comes down and your body goes back to its normal state. The acute stress reaction resolves quickly. But when it’s chronic stress like school or work or relationships … this can lead to a more constant elevation of these hormones and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.  Symptoms could be a racing heart or palpitations, chest discomfort, perceived difficulty breathing and/or muscle aches and pain, especially in the back ” — Brandy Patterson, MD , Cardiologist and Club Red Clinical Ambassador


Q: Are there natural ways to increase serotonin levels?

[Editor’s Note: Serotonin is a chemical in the body that acts as a neurotransmitter, allowing brain cells and others to communicate. When serotonin levels are imbalanced, this may influence mood and can lead to depression.]

A: “Mindfulness meditation, yoga practice and deep breathing with prolonged exhalation turns on the parasympathetic pathways, naturally increasing serotonin levels. Exercise — a good run or a mindful walk — can also increase serotonin in the body without medication. There was actually a study done in 2014 that compared the combination of meditation, deep breathing and a 45-minute yoga practice twice a week to the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI medications). It was a small study, but the outcome for both were identical. Serotonin increased and depression decreased in both groups.” — Ina Stephens, MD , RYT, Pediatrician and Co-Director of the Medical Yoga Program


Q: What is a good age to see a cardiologist?

A: “First, you have to consider your risk factors. There are non-modifiable risk factors (age, genetics, gender) and there are modifiable risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, tobacco use). If you have strong genetics — a first-degree relative (i.e. a parent or sibling) diagnosed with heart disease prior to age 55 (males) or 65 (females) denotes a significant family history — that’s an important risk factor for coronary artery disease, but also premature coronary artery disease. Work with your primary care physician to determine your risk for heart attack and cardiovascular disease by using the Framingham Risk Assessment. This will help you determine if it’s time to see a heart specialist.” — Brandy Patterson, MD, Cardiologist and Club Red Clinical Ambassador


Don’t Miss It! Get More Great Info from Our Stress Event

Stay tuned to our UVA Club Red Facebook page for our Lower Stress, Healthier You video series, featuring more Q&As from our experts and tips to keep your stress levels in check!