Remembering stressful events may lead to later heart disease

September 24, 2002

Doing math in your head in a high-pressure environment raises your blood pressure, as does walking a quick and mindless quarter-mile. But new research shows that only the former includes an emotional component, making it a stressor that keeps on giving.

Testing whether ruminations about a previous task would induce the same heart racing that the original task did, researchers found that when an emotional component was present, not only could the thoughts of the task bring later rises in blood pressure, but they also delayed recovery from the original task.

Laura M. Glynn, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues note that chronic stress induced rises in blood pressure have been associated with an increased risk of later heart disease, likely due to prolonged strain on the cardiovascular system. The study is published in the September/October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

"It may be the case that exposure to emotional stressors is of greater potential harm to the cardiovascular system than exposure to non-emotional stressors -- even ones that provoke initial responses of the same magnitude," says Glynn.

The researchers conducted an initial study in which students were given four different tasks: two designed to induce an emotionally driven rise in blood pressure and two to induce a solely physical rise. Seventy-two college undergraduates participated in this study.

The first study showed that when asked to ruminate on the emotional tasks, participants' blood pressure rose to a similar level as when they were actually performing the task. In contrast, thinking back to the physical tasks did not raise subjects' blood pressure.

The second study included 20 students and assessed how they recovered from an emotional task when left alone compared with their blood pressure recovery when they had another task to distract them. That study showed that even when not directed to think about the emotional task they just performed, the subjects would spontaneously ruminate on them afterward, making it take longer for their blood pressure to drop back to normal.

"Delayed recovery may have been due to the fact that those who just experienced an emotionally involving episode were dwelling on this experience and this maintained elevated post-stress [blood pressure] levels," Glynn suggests.

By comparison, students given a questionnaire to serve as a distractor after the task, quickly recovered their normal blood pressure level.

"Linking a tendency to exhibit delayed recovery to later [heart] disease and showing a correlation between the tendency to ruminate and [blood pressure] levels are both consistent with the idea that certain individuals are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease," the researchers explain.

The study was conducted at the University of California, San Diego.
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Andrew Porterfield at (949) 824-3969 or
Psychosomatic Medicine: Contact Victoria White at (352) 376-1611, ext. 5300, or visit

Center for Advancing Health

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