The heart is a symbol of our emotions. Our hearts “break,” we wear them “on our sleeves,” and sometimes address life events “with a heavy heart.” Although these sayings don’t refer to a literal meaning—thankfully, being left on read doesn’t actually snap the heart in two—science is discovering just how connected our emotional health is to our physical heart health.
Research suggests that there’s a strong relationship between chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and heart disease. The current view of coronary heart disease has shifted from one that focused on a process of cholesterol accumulation in arteries, to a more complex interaction of inflammation triggers and responses. Studies are finding that stress and poor emotional health can result in chronic inflammation. This increases the risk of developing factors that contribute to heart disease.
The mental health factors that increase the risk of heart disease include chronic, stress-related high blood pressure, and unhealthy emotional coping habits such as poor diet, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol and/or drug use, and smoking. When you’re feeling stressed or anxious or deeply sad, your body releases stress hormones that help prepare your body for a reaction. Your heart starts to beat faster, blood vessels constrict, and blood pressure increases. This “flight or fight” response is crucial if you need to act quickly to avoid danger. But when it occurs chronically, it can impact your physical well-being. Over time the stress-induced hike in blood pressure can damage the blood vessel walls and heart.
Negative Emotions and Heart Disease
The effect of negative emotions, such as untreated depression and anxiety, have been found to play a significant role in heart disease. Some people self-medicate their depression or anxiety with excessive alcohol or overeating, while others may isolate themselves and become inactive. The development of these unhealthy emotional coping behaviors does actually impact heart health as this increases the risk factors (obesity, poor nutrition and health, and low level of fitness) that lead to heart problems.
Stress and poor emotional health can result in chronic inflammation, increasing the risk of developing factors that contribute to heart disease.
Dr. Kris Eiring, licensed psychologist and owner of Sports and the Mind says stress can be the start of a negative loop where the resulting stress-induced anxiety feeds into depression and repeats. It’s difficult to break this cycle, but Eiring has found—in her work—that there are positive steps we can take to derail this.
How to Improve Emotional Health
Eiring recommends utilizing the following methods to help improve your emotional health and reduce the stress on your heart.
Eiring warns us to avoid waiting to feel good. She says that our wise self knows that laying on the couch isn’t going to solve the problem. Learning how to override the tendency towards inertia when feeling depressed is crucial. First and foremost, she says to get up and move. Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing when depressed. But, there’s growing research that supports the positive effect that fitness has on emotional health. Studies have shown that exercise helps reduce depression and anxiety. It’s one of the best tools for dealing with stress.
2. Work through anger issues.
Eiring adds that anger is an emotion that gets little focus. However, for most people, hanging on to anger can whittle away at their ability to feel happy. When anger is unexpressed or not recognized, it can increase stress and feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a difficult emotion to work through, but becoming aware that you’re harboring anger, and understanding why you are feeling it can help provide the first steps towards finding better ways to deal with it. Talking with a therapist is a great way to learn tools for redirecting a habitual negative response, such as anger and avoiding triggers.
3. Maintain your social network.
The positive role of a close network of friends and family is a crucial factor in maintaining mental health. Loneliness and isolation are stressful for human beings. Feeling depressed may increase your inability to get up and out the door. However, it’s essential to find ways to connect with people who provide a positive environment. Take baby steps by setting up a coffee break or a walk with a friend. A one-on-one is easier than dealing with a big group when you’re not feeling social.
4. Create daily mindfulness breaks.
Eiring suggests building in frequent mindfulness breaks where you sit quietly and think about how you feel at that moment. Are you carrying unexpressed anger, or is depression affecting your choices? These breaks can help you “reset” how you’re responding emotionally and physically to your day. If you’re feeling stressed, these breaks help derail the usual negative feedback loop. Make a list of things that you can do when stress is becoming overwhelming, such as journaling, meditation, or other mindful ways to become more aware of your emotions. Over time, your mind and body will become more resilient and less apt to go to a fight or flight stress response.
The critical points for improving your emotional health and reducing stress-related heart conditions are a heart-healthy diet, daily exercise, mindfulness work, and keeping in touch with your social network. Also, working with a mental health professional is a great way to build better coping mechanisms.
Finally, Eiring suggests that if you have any of the following red flags—withdrawing from the things that you usually enjoy; isolating yourself from friends and family; showing impulsive or destructive behavior; and excessively sleeping, eating, drinking, or using drugs—that it’s a good idea to seek out a mental health professional for help.