Can stress cause a stroke?

Middle-aged woman looking stressed at her desk

Stress is an inevitable part of life that can sometimes feel overwhelming. If left unaddressed, it can also have major impacts on your health.

But can the universal human experience of stress lead to a stroke? Neurologist Pierre Fayad, MD, breaks down the connection between stress and stroke.

Not all stress is bad

Dr. Fayad draws a distinction between “good stress,” which can motivate us and lead to progress, and “bad stress,” which leaves us feeling depleted and can harm our health.

“Some level of stress can drive us to achieve,” he says. “As long as you are able to manage it and not allow it to drag you down, then it leads to a positive impact.”

Problems begin to arise when a person can no longer keep up with the demands placed upon them or can no longer cope with the circumstances of their lives.

Impact of acute and chronic stress

Acute stress is a short-term response to immediate threats and can be intense but is often short-lived. Chronic stress happens when the body’s stress response continues over extended periods due to ongoing challenges.

Both acute and chronic stress can additionally lead to behaviors that negatively impact our health and amplify stroke risk factors. These behaviors include:

  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of exercise

“All of these fallouts from stress can drag you down the road toward a stroke or heart attack,” Dr. Fayad says. “This is where it becomes difficult to measure exactly what stress does and why the link between stress itself and stroke is not clear cut. However, there is definitely a direct and indirect relationship.”

Workplace stress

Work is a source of stress for many people. In the best-case scenario, the stress is measured, manageable and results in positive outcomes.

“Even if someone is under a lot of demands at work, when they are able to get a break and achieve progress in their career, they may feel the positives outweigh the stress,” Dr. Fayad says. “It may even be beneficial for them, health-wise.”

The concept of job strain describes a situation where employees face high demands but have little control or decision-making power. This can result in significant physical and mental stress and has been linked to an increase in stroke and heart attacks.

Other sources of stress

Stress isn't confined to the workplace. It can seep into our lives from many sources, including:

  • Financial challenges
  • Caregiving for children or elderly parents
  • Illness
  • General demands of modern life

Despite our interconnected world, many people feel more disconnected and isolated than ever before. This seems especially true among young people in the U.S., who are arguably the most “connected” through social media and other virtual platforms.

The most recent annual World Happiness Report, conducted by the United Nations, showed a large decrease in well-being amongst Americans aged 30 and under. The long-term health effects on younger adults, who account for 1 in 4 stroke patients, remain to be seen.

For individuals who have experienced chronic stress and then had a stroke, social isolation can become a major stressor, Dr. Fayad says.

“Their level of stress goes even higher, and their recovery is worse,” he says, adding that many stroke patients experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. A loss of independence and mobility can result in stroke patients spending more time alone, adding even more stress.

Steps to lower stress

To mitigate stress and its potential health risks, Dr. Fayad suggests the following steps:

1. Understand your stress: Recognize how much stress you're experiencing. Identify your triggers and assess how stress impacts your sleep, productivity and ability to achieve your goals.

2. Prioritize accordingly: Identify your top priorities and focus on attaining those goals. Be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve. Set boundaries and learn to say no.

Additionally, it is always a good idea to prioritize a healthy lifestyle, including:

While it is hard to say whether stress can directly cause a stroke, it can lead to behaviors and conditions that increase the risk of one. Managing stress is a critical step in protecting our health and living better, not just longer.

Find more information about stroke signs, symptoms and risk factors in Advancing Health.