CVD and Stess

In chapter three of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), Sapolsky does a great job in describing how stress affects our cardiovascular system. We learn that when stressed, our cardiovascular system changes to allow us to function during unexpected emergencies. For example, our heart rate increases, the force with which our heart beats increases, and there is less blood flow to parts of our bodies that are not important during emergencies (such as our bladder and gut). While all these cardiovascular changes are important during extremely stressful events that require an individual to take action (e.g., running away from a mountain lion), these cardiovascular changes can happen even when thinking of an upcoming stressful event. In my case, October will be one of the most stressful months this year since I will be proposing my masters, presenting a talk in front of 80 undergrads, and preparing various assignments for classes. When I think about these upcoming events I feel a wave of dread pass through my body. Unfortunately, if I continue to stress over events like these, I can cause serious damage to my body. There is a chance I could develop hypertension, damaging my blood vessels and causing plaque build-up, making it more difficult for blood to pass through them. While I can tell myself to stop stressing over these things because, in the end, everything will be okay, the problem is that because of the distress my blood vessels are going through, every new stressor that occurs will be even more damaging to my body because my arteries have been clogged by the plaque build-up so bad that my heart itself may not be receiving sufficient blood flow. On top of all of this, being a woman does not help. The diagnosis of cardiovascular disease in women is rising, while they are decreasing in men. Moreover, women who suffer heart attacks are more likely to be disabled after the episode because we usually experience them later in life. While Sapolsky’s (2004) chapter is highly informative and is important to read, it is also a bit depressing. I am in a field where stressing is the norm. A prospective study conducted by Chandola and colleagues found that employees with chronic work stress were twice as likely to develop a metabolic syndrome such as cardiovascular disease (Chandola, Brunner, Marmot, 2006). While being a professor is rewarding, it is also extremely stressful especially when trying to obtain tenure. As researchers we stress over publications, funding, running participants, ensuring there are enough participants to run, etc. On top of that, at times we may work in hostile environments because we are so stressed and because we want to succeed in our careers, perhaps burning bridges along the way.

On the positive side, there are things we can do to keep us from getting to a position that is hard to bounce back from. A study conducted by Tuck and colleagues (2017) sought to understand whether the ability to make oneself express positive emotion predicted cardiovascular disease risk scores. Participants performed a test of expressive skill and biological, demographic, and behavioral data were collected to determine cardiovascular disease risk for participants. The authors found that individuals who were able to express positive emotion had a lower cardiovascular risk score (Tuck, Adams, Pressman, & Consedine, 2017). Furthermore, a study done by Newman and colleagues (2011) wanted to determine the relationship between hostility and cardiovascular disease. The authors found that participants who were hostile did, in fact, have a 2-fold greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease (Newman et al., 2011). An editorial comment was made by Whooley and Wong (2011) in response to the Newman and colleagues (2011) article stating that the real message from this study should be the absence of hostility is protective against cardiovascular disease (Whooley & Wong, 2011). These two studies illustrate some easy adjustments we can make to ensure we do not develop cardiovascular disease. While conducting research can be a battle with ourselves, our colleagues, and undergrads, we have to remember why we conduct research and have undergrads in the first place. We do not conduct research for the accolades, the money, or fame nor do we have undergrads for free labor. We conduct the research we love because we want to make an impact on society and we have undergrads work alongside us in order to teach them all we know so they can create their own scientific breakthroughs. So, we should take these studies to heart (ha) and when we feel hostile towards undergrads that may have no idea what they’re doing, take a second, think back to when we were undergrads and remember we all start somewhere. This will put us in a positive mood and maybe even put a smile on our faces, ultimately decreasing our risk for cardiovascular disease.


Chandola, T., Brunner, E., & Marmot, M. (2006). Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study. BMJ, 332:521.

Newman, J.D., Davidson, K.W., Shaffer, J.A., Schwartz, J.E., Chaplin, W., Kirkland, S., & Shimbo, D. (2011). Observed hostility and the risk of incident ischemic heart disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 58(12), 1222-8.

Sapolsky, R.M. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Tuck, N.L., Adams, K.S., Pressman, S.D., & Consedine, N.S. (2017) Greater ability to express positive emotion is associated with lower projected cardiovascular disease risk. J Behav Med.

Whooley, M.A., & Wong, J. (2011). Hostility and cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 58(12), 1229-30.


  1. First, YES PUNS. Second, I felt exactly the same way when reading the Sapolsky chapter! Stressing about being stressed is something that is likely going to follow us throughout graduate school, but I wonder if knowing the mechanisms underlying the effects of stress on the cardiovascular system might push us to be more in-tune with how we’re feeling. Moreover, being armed with this information has certainly driven me to reconsider stress as more than just a fleeting sensation that will pass when the assignment is turned in. Like you mention, chronic stress exposure can have long-lasting effects on our health and how we respond to future stressors. Maybe we should have graduate school courses in meditation? Yoga?

  2. Puns, FTW. 🙂 I find reading this stuff depressing too, Ceci, but – like you – on balance, I’d rather be aware so that I can perhaps do something about it. One of the things that struck me about your post is that you naturally appealed to a reappraisal strategy. Reframing the meaning of everyday situations in less stressful terms is a potentially useful emotion-regulatory approach to navigating stressful academic terrain.

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