Since ancient times, the heart has been a symbol of our emotions. But, scientists have uncovered a physical link between emotions and heart health.
What the research shows
Science suggests an association among stress, depression and heart disease. The association however is not completely understood, and more research is needed. Stress may affect risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure. Stress may also affect behaviors that increase risk such as smoking, overeating, drinking too much alcohol, and physical inactivity. Managing and treating these conditions is important to reduce your overall health risk.
Stress and your heart
Emotional stress causes a negative chain reaction within your body. If you're angry, anxious, tense, frustrated, frightened, or depressed, your body's natural response is to release stress hormones. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline. They prepare your body to deal with stress. They cause your heart to beat more rapidly and your blood vessels to narrow to help push blood to the center of the body. The hormones also increase your blood pressure. This “fight or flight” response is thought to date back to prehistoric times, when we needed an extra burst of adrenaline to escape predators.
After your stress subsides, your blood pressure and heart rate should return to normal. If you're continually stressed out though, your body doesn't have a chance to recover. This may lead to damage of your artery walls.
Although it is not clear that stress alone causes high blood pressure or heart disease, it does pose an indirect risk and also has a negative effect on your general wellness.
Stress and your reactions
You can manage stress in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Unfortunately, many of us deal with stress by smoking, drinking too much, and overeating. All of these unhealthy habits can contribute to heart disease. But using healthy ways to keep your stress under control allows you to better protect yourself against heart disease. Try these ideas:
Exercise. When you are anxious and tense, exercise is a great way to burn off all that excess energy and stress. Go for a walk, a bike ride, or a swim, or go to the gym for your favorite class.
Breathe deeply. Yoga is not only good for your body, but for your mind, too. The meditative, deep breathing done in yoga is calming and relieves stress, especially if you do it regularly.
Take a break. When your stress level rises, take a few minutes to escape your surroundings. Spend a few quiet moments alone, read a short story, or listen to your favorite music. Cultivate gratitude. Make a list of what you're grateful for in your life to focus on the positives.
Get together with friends. Social media is no substitute for being with people you love. Create some weekly rituals with your friends. If they live far away, try volunteering or joining a local group of people with similar interests to yours. Research suggests that people with frequent social connections enjoy better protection against high blood pressure.
Scientists need to do more research to look more closely at the link between emotional health and heart health. But the existing evidence is consistent enough to prove that you should take its potential effects on your heart seriously. Exercise regularly and keep your emotional health in check, and you’ll build a stronger buffer against heart disease.