April 14, 2021 by Peter B. Laird
Ask the Psychiatrist: Heart Health and Emotions – What’s the Connection?
Research shows a strong connection between your emotions and your heart. Love, anger, sadness, depression, loneliness, hostility, a Type A personality – all of these can affect the function and rhythms of your heart.
“Everything we feel and do, our brain feels and does too, and that combination affects the body positively or negatively,” says Rachel Rohaidy, M.D., a board certified psychiatrist at Baptist Health Primary Care and medical director of The Recovery Village at Baptist Health. “Love and feelings are just a series of chemical reactions to our emotions.”
Dr. Rohaidy points to several studies that clearly demonstrate the strong connection between your brain and your heart:
- In a Harvard Medical School study about post myocardial infarction (MI) recovery, patients who were depressed about their condition had worse outcomes than those who were not depressed. Depressed patients also exhibited many coping difficulties during recovery, one of which was handling of medications.
- Another study found that people who believed in a higher power had better outcomes. They spent less time being sick, more time being healthy and also had faster recovery times.
- A study in women versus men showed that, when faced with an MI and pre- and post-MI depression, women recovered better than men.
“When we feel, anger, frustration, anxiety or any stressful emotion, our body produces more stress hormones such as cortisol,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “When the heart isn’t functioning well, the increased cortisol is not only harmful to the heart but also to other parts of the body.”
Dr. Rohaidy says that people who have a lot of stress in their lives tend to have a lowered immune system and a higher rate of hypertension, high blood pressure, blood vessel damage weight gain and risk of diabetes. “And illness-induced stress opens the door to many hormone-producing emotions,” she adds.
When your stress and cortisol levels are consistently elevated, your body’s immune system isn’t able to work optimally, Dr. Rohaidy says. “This can make you more susceptible to illness – not what you want amid a global pandemic.”
Dr. Rohaidy notes that all stress hormones are not bad. “We want the stress hormones to work well when we need them, like running away from a tiger or some sort of immediate threat.”
According to Dr. Rohaidy, there is a growing school of thought – called positive psychiatry – in which people can learn to control response to stress by learning to practice mindfulness. The easiest way to practice mindfulness, she advises, is to sit with your emotions and recognize them. By making this a regular practice, feelings of anger, sadness and frustration that increase stress can be reduced over time.
“I’m not an expert in mindfulness, but using a little mindfulness can be helpful,” says Dr. Rohaidy. “Figuring out what is the anger you have and recognizing what it is doing to you can help you stay heart-healthy.”
Another way to combat stress, Dr. Rohaidy suggests, is to think of someone, something or someplace in your life that makes you feel appreciative. “If you learn to recall that image whenever you feel stressed, that thought will help you regulate your emotions and decrease your heart rate – all part of living a more heart-healthy life.”
The goal of practicing mindfulness is to learn personal mastery of emotions and avoid the runaway symptoms. This is not the easiest thing to learn, Dr. Rohaidy acknowledges, but if you can, it will help you be better prepared to handle any stress that comes your way.
Cardiovascular patients are not the only patients who benefit from practicing mindfulness. For expecting moms, using mindfulness and stress-reducing activities can lead to better outcomes in pregnancy, such as decreased rates of miscarriage and having a better birthing experience. Cancer patients also respond better to treatments – as do patients with substance abuse issues – because mindfulness gives them more control over their emotions.
“What we’ve learned is that our emotions affect our health and our health affects our emotions,” says Dr. Rohaidy. “In time, learning to practice mindfulness will decrease morbidity, improve mortality and enable you to become healthier.”