Emotions and Heart Health

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

What the research shows

Current research has found a possible connection between stress or depression and heart disease. One recent study, for instance, found that having either depression or anxiety may make it more likely that you will have a heart attack or heart failure in the future. Having both depression and anxiety increased the risk. The same study linked anxiety and depression in people with heart disease to an increased risk for a hospital stay.

Although most research suggests a link among depression, anxiety, and heart disease, the results differ. Researchers are continuing to look at this issue to more clearly define how these factors are related.

A current review of medical research on anxiety, heart disease, and high blood pressure did confirm a relationship among the three. In particular, researchers know that anxiety can increase the level of stress hormones in the body. These hormones play a role in high blood pressure. People with chronic anxiety are more likely to develop high blood pressure. And people with high blood pressure are more likely to be anxious. How this link plays out in the long term is not clear. 

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 are called 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.

Stress’s link to high blood pressure and inflammation is dangerous because both are known risk factors for heart disease and other heart problems. Although studies haven’t proved that stress alone causes heart disease, it clearly poses 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. Sure, Facebook is fun, but it’s 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.