Effects of Negative Emotions on the Heart Can Lead to Cardiac Problems
< Feb. 11, 2009 > -- Taking a few minutes to relax, calm down, and simply enjoy life can do more than soothe frayed nerves or a troubled mind - it may save your life.
Emotional upheaval - whether in the form of stress, worry, depression, or anger - can increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, a growing body of research studies have found.
In 2007, Jesse Stewart, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, led a three-year research study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that has linked negative emotions - depression, anxiety, hostility, anger - with atherosclerosis, or thickening of the inside walls of the coronary arteries. Thickening of these walls can slow or block the flow of blood to the heart and brain, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
"The current evidence suggests that there is a link between negative emotions and risk for heart disease" - the leading cause of death in the United States, says Dr. Stewart. "In these observational studies, the strength of the connection is comparable to other well-known cardiovascular risk factors. It's not a weak correlation."
"Depression can be considered an emerging risk factor for heart disease," Dr. Stewart adds. "It can be thought of as much the same way as cholesterol or high blood pressure or smoking, although the evidence base is not the highest available."
There are two primary reasons why negative emotions can have such an impact on the heart, says clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., a spokesman for the American Heart Association (AHA).
First, emotions such as stress and depression can have a behavioral effect, that lead individuals to do a terrible job taking care of themselves, and participate in unhealthy activities. "People who are stressed out and depressed are less likely to practice good self-care," says Dr. Jacobs, a faculty member at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa. "They may eat poorly, indulge in alcohol too much, fail to stick to a prescribed medical regimen, or sleep poorly."
According to Dr. Jacobs, there is growing evidence regarding the biological effects of psychological stress. "For example, there's mounting research that when people get stressed out, their hormonal system produces more cortisol," a hormone released by the adrenal gland, says Dr. Jacobs. "This has been associated with heart disease and diabetes," he says.
Continuous stress also affects the circulatory system. "The arteries tend to narrow when people are in situations of very high stress," Dr. Jacobs says. "That causes increased blood pressure."
Second, depression can also have a negative effect on the heart. "Depression has been linked with increased inflammation, as measured by markers in the blood," Dr. Stewart says. "These markers have been shown to predict future heart attacks. Depression also has an effect on the immune system, which then affects cardiopulmonary health."
Taking better care of the body can lead to a healthier heart. "The same things doctors tell people for physical health are good for mental health," Dr. Jacobs says. "Physical exercise, for example. Exercise has many health benefits and it also decreases stress and depression."
Sleeping through the night works wonders, too. "When people get a full night's sleep, they are more resilient to handling stress in their lives," Dr. Jacobs adds.
The American Medical Association (AMA) recommends a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Alcoholic beverages should be consumed in moderation. Smoking and situations that cause stress should be avoided.
Reading, praying, quiet time, yoga, or meditation can also decrease stress. Dr. Stewart recommends counseling if negative emotions seem out of control. The AMA suggests developing a support systems that consists of family, friends, and/or co-workers to discuss problems.
Having a little fun once in a while is also helpful. A recent study found that listening to music that a person enjoys can increase blood flow dramatically as the arteries dilate or expand.
"People need to build into their daily lives time for relaxation, whether that be spending time with friends, reading, playing video games, whatever," Dr. Jacobs says. "People need the opportunity to unwind."
The purpose of American Heart Month is to encourage people to assess their heart health and some of the forces that may be harming it, whether it is marital discord, financial problems, job stress, or even loneliness.
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Stress as we know it is part of life. From being late to work to falling behind on monthly bills, stress is so common that we begin to see it as normal.
Too much stress, especially the kind experienced daily, overloads our capacity to recover. It can lead to short- and long-term illnesses, such as immune-system impairment, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, and an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
“The fight-or-flight stress response is a primitive hormonal reaction initiated by any threat to our physical safety,” says Dr. Stephen Reed. “But in today’s world, this reaction occurs in response to perceived threats, such as work deadlines or traffic jams, even though they aren’t physically harmful. As a result, the body becomes overloaded with repeated doses of cortisol and adrenaline.”
In an ideal environment, once a threat or stressor is gone, our physical responses are designed to return to normal.
“However, when we experience chronic stress, the type triggered by a bad marriage or an extremely taxing job, the lack of recovery and ongoing low-level secretion of cortisol cause damage to the body,” explains Penny Kendall-Reed, who co-authored a book on stress with Dr. Reed.
Fortunately, you can take proactive steps to prevent the toll stress takes on your life.
Solutions for chronic stress are varied. Approaches are more or less helpful depending on your mental and physical strengths and weaknesses.
Although you may believe this is a time-efficient way to get things done, it’s easy to become overloaded. Instead, tackle projects one at a time.
Learn to say no
“People often have a problem saying no to others for fear of hurting or upsetting them,” says Dr. Reed. “But, learning where your boundaries are and how much you can reasonably handle is crucial to putting a stop to endless responsibilities and chronic stress.”
Avoid known stressors
Some parts of your day may increase your stress. If so, try to alter your routine to avoid or reduce their impact. For example, if you get upset in heavy traffic, find ways to make the time spent more enjoyable by listening to soothing music.
Put a priority on sleep
Sleep is a built-in restorative that can make a huge difference in how you bounce back from daily pressures.
Regular exercise helps protect the cardiovascular and immune systems from the consequences of stressful events. Whether it’s swimming or walking, find time to be physically active on a regular basis.
Learn and practice relaxation techniques
These techniques, including deep breathing, meditation, and yoga, can be used when you’re under acute stress. They can help you feel better fairly quickly.
Eat a healthy diet
Try to avoid sugar, caffeine, and highly processed foods. This will stabilize blood sugar levels and help you remain on an even keel.
If you experience chronic stress, talk with your doctor or a health care professional.