February has long been symbolized with images of hearts, and positive feelings of love and affection in celebration of Valentine's Day. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson fittingly declared February as American Heart Month to raise awareness about the risks and signs of heart disease, and to encourage healthy decision-making. While much progress has been made in the fight against cardiovascular disease, it remains a leading cause of death for women and men in the United States. People with poor cardiovascular health are also at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Emotions are commonly associated with the heart. The common expressions, "heart ache," "heart-to heart connection," and "feeling from the heart" refer to this. A new statement from the American Heart Association, published by the journal Circulation, evaluates the relationship between psychological health and heart health, and states that psychological health can positively or negatively affect a person's health and risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
The head and heart connection
"A person's mind, heart, and body are all interconnected and interdependent in what can be termed 'the mind-heart-body connection,'" said Dr. Glenn N. Levine, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and chair of the writing committee for the statement. "Research has clearly demonstrated that negative psychological factors, personality traits, and mental health disorders can negatively impact cardiovascular health. On the other hand, studies have found positive psychological attributes are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality."
Experiencing stressful emotions or circumstances leads to a chain reaction in the body causing:
- stress hormone levels to increase
- blood vessels to constrict
- elevated blood pressure
- weakened immune system
These reactions set the stage for conditions causing heart disease. While practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors can go a long way towards prevention, people experiencing negative psychological factors, or stressful emotions, may turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking, inactivity, or alcohol or substance use, leading to increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Mental health can influence your heart health
Mental health disorders such as Depression, Anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after cardiac events. These disorders can occur after an acute cardiac event from factors including pain, fear of death or disability, and financial problems after the event. It is important to handle these responses in a healthy way.
Conversely, people with positive psychological health are more likely to have health factors linked to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, such as:
- lower blood pressure
- better glucose control
- less inflammation
- lower cholesterol
When we experience heart-felt emotions like love, care, appreciation, and compassion, the heart produces smoother, more harmonious rhythms that reflect positive emotions, and indicate cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. Learning to shift out of stressful emotions to these positive emotions can have profound effects on our cardiovascular system and our overall health.
Focus on mental well-being to positively influence your health
With a better appreciation of how emotion is linked to the heart, you can focus on staying positive, use strategies to cope with chronic stress, and form positive connections in your life. Managing daily stressors and increasing your happiness is crucial to the health of both mind and body.
- Talk to your doctor. Schedule an annual physical or preventive check-up to maintain a relationship with your doctor, and to discuss how you're feeling, both mentally and physically.
- Learn and recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders and heart disease.
- Manage stress with daily mindful meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises.
- Try progressive relaxation, a technique where you concentrate on tightening, then relaxing various muscle groups. This can be combined with other meditative and breathing exercises for a deep sense of physical and mental relaxation.
- Avoid heavy drinking, and don't smoke or vape.
- Exercise. Try a 30-minute brisk walk, swimming, cycling, gardening or dancing.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects.
- Avoid trying to make too many changes at once. Focus instead on changing one existing habit (e.g., eating habits, inactive lifestyle). Set a reasonable initial goal and work toward meeting it.
- Don't ignore the symptoms of depression. Feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of interest in ordinary or pleasurable activities, reduced energy, and eating and sleep disorders are just a few of depression's many warning signs. If they persist for more than two weeks, discuss these issues with your doctor. It may be that a mental health provider working in collaboration with your physician would be beneficial.
- Identify the sources of stress in your life and look for ways to reduce and manage them. Seeing a professional mental health provider to learn to manage stress is helpful not only for preventing heart disease, but also for speeding recovery from cardiac events when used along with exercise programs and other healthy lifestyle changes.
- Enlist the support of friends, family, and work associates to maintain meaningful social connections. Staying connected to others helps to fight off loneliness, and reduce stress. Social support, even while socially distanced, is particularly critical for overcoming feelings of depression and isolation.
- Practicing mindfulness is another way to promote mental wellness by reducing stress, promoting sleep, and helping you feel more balanced and connected. According to the British Heart Foundation, there is growing evidence that practicing mindfulness may contribute to reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Try to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly. Set a sleep schedule, follow a nightly routine to prepare for bedtime, turn off electronics 30-60 minutes before bedtime, avoid caffeine, and/or practice relaxation techniques, including meditation, mindfulness or guided imagery to drift off to sleep.
First Choice Health EAP is here to help our members navigate stressful and uncertain life events, and to celebrate the positives as well. For counseling referrals and work/life support, call us 24/7 at (800) 777-4114.