The cardiovascular system is composed of the heart and blood circulation system. For many years, disorders that involve the cardiovascular system—known as cardiovascular disorders—have been a major focal point in the study of psychophysiological disorders because of the cardiovascular system’s centrality in the stress response (Everly & Lating, 2002). Heart disease is one such condition. Each year, heart disease causes approximately one in three deaths in the United States, and it is the leading cause of death in the developed world (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011; Shapiro, 2005).
The symptoms of heart disease vary somewhat depending on the specific kind of heart disease one has, but they generally involve angina—chest pains or discomfort that occur when the heart does not receive enough blood (Office on Women’s Health, 2009). The pain often feels like the chest is being pressed or squeezed; burning sensations in the chest and shortness of breath are also commonly reported. Such pain and discomfort can spread to the arms, neck, jaws, stomach (as nausea), and back (American Heart Association [AHA], 2012a) (Figure).
A major risk factor for heart disease is hypertension, which is high blood pressure. Hypertension forces a person’s heart to pump harder, thus putting more physical strain on the heart. If left unchecked, hypertension can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure; it can also lead to kidney failure and blindness. Hypertension is a serious cardiovascular disorder, and it is sometimes called the silent killer because it has no symptoms—one who has high blood pressure may not even be aware of it (AHA, 2012b).
Many risk factors contributing to cardiovascular disorders have been identified. These risk factors include social determinants such as aging, income, education, and employment status, as well as behavioral risk factors that include unhealthy diet, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption; obesity and diabetes are additional risk factors (World Health Organization [WHO], 2013).
Over the past few decades, there has been much greater recognition and awareness of the importance of stress and other psychological factors in cardiovascular health (Nusair, Al-dadah, & Kumar, 2012). Indeed, exposure to stressors of many kinds has also been linked to cardiovascular problems; in the case of hypertension, some of these stressors include job strain (Trudel, Brisson, & Milot, 2010), natural disasters (Saito, Kim, Maekawa, Ikeda, & Yokoyama, 1997), marital conflict (Nealey-Moore, Smith, Uchino, Hawkins, & Olson-Cerny, 2007), and exposure to high traffic noise levels at one’s home (de Kluizenaar, Gansevoort, Miedema, & de Jong, 2007). Perceived discrimination appears to be associated with hypertension among African Americans (Sims et al., 2012). In addition, laboratory-based stress tasks, such as performing mental arithmetic under time pressure, immersing one’s hand into ice water (known as the cold pressor test), mirror tracing, and public speaking have all been shown to elevate blood pressure (Phillips, 2011).