Reducing stress and managing your emotional state is sound advice for keeping your heart healthy. Strategies to reduce your heart attack risk can also teach you how to live well.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that feelings, especially stress, fatigue, depression or anxiety, can have a profound impact on the heart. Studies have shown that intensely negative emotions, especially from major life events like losing jobs or loved ones, are risk factors for stress and anxiety—and it’s these emotional states are shown to be risk factors for a heart attack.
Case in point: in addition to addressing diet and exercise habits, preventive cardiology programs will also screen patients for stress, anxiety and depression, to proactively identify ways to help prevent potential heart troubles later. Other risk factors for heart problems include lifestyle challenges such as overbearing schedules and social isolation, and attitudinal factors such as pervasive anger or hostility.
So, why does stress, depression or anger take a toll on our heart health? There are multiple aspects of physical and psychological responses at work:
- Stress has an effect on our body, and when it’s intense or negative, like fear or anxiety, it then triggers the release of hormones.
- Some of these hormonal releases are nature’s way of helping us protect ourselves, but others can put further stress on the heart and blood vessels.
- Hormones induced by stress and highly charged emotional states cause physical irritation, or in other words, inflammation.
- The effect on blood vessels can lead to results like raising blood pressure or and an abnormal heart rhythm. These symptoms can in turn cause more worrisome feelings that can ultimately set off the response cycle all over again.
- Another response-related issue is how we sometimes choose a negative or harmful habit to help us cope with stressful situations. Common examples include eating or drinking too much, or smoking cigarettes.
- On the reverse, feelings of depression or anxiety can trigger more of a shutting down, or lack of motivation to push through, leading to self-isolation, inactivity, vegging out on the sofa with a snack and the remote, etc.
Heart Healthy Ways to Live Well
- Seek Connection and Community. Knowing that loneliness and separation from friends and family cause difficulty and sadness, make it a priority to get out and if possible contribute. Something as simple as a monthly volunteer opportunity or calling an old friend who lives across the country, can take you out of the rut of staying home alone and feeling the stress of isolation.
- Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Anger management is a real thing! Being regularly angry, hostile or confrontational has been associated with earlier heart disease, higher blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms. Triggers can’t always be avoided, and workplace pressures can add up, so the big idea here is to learn to let things go. Take positive steps to deal with anger, look for logical ways to assess situations instead of instant judgements, and make it a point to reap the benefits of teamwork and collaboration.
- Practice Mindfulness. Whether a formal technique or simply a habit, the practice of mindfulness has been developed in some cultures for thousands of years. It requires paying attention to the reality of the moment, and not letting your thoughts and assumptions run away with you. Like meditation, the relaxation associated with “living in the present moment” has been shown to improve and reduce stress and anxiety. Other doorways to more mindfulness can be doing yoga or spending time in nature.