How our emotions affect our heart health

March 19, 2019 | by Ann Davis, M.D.

Ever heard of the expressions “you nearly gave me a heart attack,” “I was worried to death,” or “it broke my heart”?

The heart and the mind are intimately connected. Negative states of mind, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger and chronic stress, may increase the risk for heart disease over time or worsen heart issues that already exist.

How do negative emotions affect heart health?

Take, for example, broken heart syndrome, also called stress cardiomyopathy. Studies have shown the risk of a heart attack increases 21-fold within 24 hours after the loss of a loved one.

The heart can be affected by other shocks besides the loss of a loved one. Stress cardiomyopathy can occur in reaction to stressful news, such as a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. And strong emotions, such as anger, may cause irregular heart rhythms.

Stress can be harmful to your heart, too. If you are under stress, your blood pressure and heart rate go up. Chronic stress exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol, and may also change the way blood clots. All of these factors can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

Negative emotions may also affect lifestyle habits, which in turn can increase heart disease risk. For example, people who are chronically stressed, anxious, depressed or angry may be more likely to drink too much alcohol, smoke, overeat and get less exercise — all unhealthy habits that are bad for your heart.

What if your heart is already vulnerable?

If you have heart disease, it can be further exacerbated by emotional stress. Heart disease patients with anxiety are twice as likely to die within three years of a cardiac event.

Also, heart disease patients are three times as likely to be depressed. For those newly diagnosed with heart disease, depression increases the risk that a harmful heart-related event will occur within that year. Even in people with no prior heart disease, major depression doubles the risk of dying from heart-related causes.

What can you do? The American Heart Association recommends that every heart patient be routinely screened for depression. Additionally, a new emotion-based approach to heart health, called cardiac psychology, focuses on the mental health needs of cardiac patients. It promotes tools, like stress management and psychotherapy, to help patients cope with their disease.

The heart and mind co-exist. Don’t ignore emotions that can overwhelm your life, like chronic stress, anxiety, depression and anger. Find ways to take care of your emotional well-being and your heart will thank you.

Try these heart-healthy tips:

  1. Recognize your feelings and express them. Talk to loved ones, write in a journal or join a support group. Seek professional help if you need it.
  2. Manage stress with daily mindful meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises.
  3. Avoid heavy drinking and don’t smoke.
  4. Exercise. Try a 15-minute brisk walk, swimming, cycling, gardening or dancing.
  5. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects.

Learn more about cardiac care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

To find out if you’re at risk for heart disease, take an online HeartAware assessment.

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Untreated depression brings heart patients added risk

Grief’s effect on the heart

Has a serious or chronic illness got you depressed?

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