Tell It to My Heart: The Effects of Emotions on the Heart

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Since ancient times, the heart has been a symbol of our emotions. But, scientists have uncovered a physical link between emotions and heart health.

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What the Research Shows

Science suggests an association among stress, depression, and heart disease. Several studies strongly suggest that certain psychosocial factors such as grief, depression, and job loss contribute to heart attack and cardiac arrest. 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.

Our primary care physicians are trained in doing just that.

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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.

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Stress and Your Reactions

You can manage stress in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Unfortunately, many people 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. Plan to exercise for 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity, 4 to 5 days a week to relieve stress and improve your heart health.
  • 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.

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Research is ongoing 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.

To learn more about Heart and Vascular Services at UMC, click here.

 

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Be Mindful, B-WELL

Authors: Jennifer Hughes, Ph.D. (UMC Trauma Psychologist), Alisha Bowker (UMC Licensed Clinical Social Worker)iStock-639641818 (1).jpg

Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

Do you feel burnt out? Are you overworked? Do you feel as though you are at a crossroads in life? Are you happy?

Practicing mindfulness can help anyone who experiences stress, feels overwhelmed or battles with despair. It is proven to help many patients, too – especially those who have experienced trauma — learn how to cope with physical and emotional pain.

It also benefits healthcare professionals as they cope with stress after providing care to others, connect with patients, and work improve their quality of life.

For mental health professionals, this awareness helps reduce negative emotions and anxiety, and increases their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.

Research through Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, and other leading healthcare agencies have shown that mindfulness can be effective, additionally, in reducing stress, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving sleep and pain management.
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Starting a mindfulness practice can be as simple as following these steps:

  • Choose a specific time: Set aside a time and space each day to practice mindfulness. It can be the same time everyday or different times, whatever is best for you. Find a quiet place with few distractions and take a comfortable seat in a chair or on a pillow on the floor.
  • Observe the here and now: The goal of a mindfulness practice is not to quiet the mind; in fact, our mind is made to wander, so why fight its natural instincts! Instead, set the intention of paying attention to the present, the here and now, without judgment.
  • Allow your judgments to come and go: When your mind inevitably begins to wander, some of those thoughts may be judging the current situation (for better or worse). When these thoughts arise, make a mental note of their presence and let them pass, and return back to the here and now. Don’t get bogged down in the power of judgment!
  • Be kind to your wandering mind: When we practice mindfulness, it can be helpful to begin by welcoming all of ourselves, including our pesky wandering mind. When your mind begins to drift away from the present moment, don’t judge it or yourself. Practice noticing those thoughts and returning to the here and now. Welcome your mind just as it is. iStock-584608574.jpg

 Mindfulness can also help with:

  • Physical Pain: One of the most effective mindfulness practices to help ease physical pain is the body scan, which allows us to identify and “dive into” different body sensations. By first focusing on specific body sensations and then widening our awareness to our body as a whole can help us to identify less with our pain.
  • Stress, Anxiety/Trauma, and Depression:
    • Stress: mindfulness can reduce stress in the moment and give you skills that will help decrease the impact of stress in the future
    • Anxiety and Trauma: Mindfulness can help the brain respond to traumatic memories in less painful and more helpful ways. This helps reduce the negative impact of traumatic events and improve overall functioning
    • Depression: Mindfulness can help ease the symptoms of depression by decreasing the cycle of negative thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors. It can even help to improve relationships with others through breaking these cycles

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At University Medical Center New Orleans, we are working to address burnout and compassion fatigue by focusing on mindfulness and other wellness initiatives through B-WELL: a new program that aims to give back to our employees and encourage them to remember to take care of themselves.

Our advice to you?: Be mindful to work toward B(ing)-WELL.

For more information on mindfulness, check out these resources:

Online

Books

  • Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl, Ph.D. and Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Free Smartphone Apps

  • Stop, Breathe & Think
  • Insight Timer
  • PTSD Coach
  • Mindfulness Coach
  • Headspace (Paid)