Although science has proven that our emotions are centered in the brain, the heart has been a symbol of emotional life since ancient times.
Many studies confirm a strong link between the heart and the brain. For example, if you experience anger, your heart rhythm patterns will change and become more irregular. The centers in your brain will then recognize these irregular heart rhythm patterns as negative feelings and activate the stress response centers. Consequently, these signals will generate the feelings of anger you experience.
In other words, your emotional and mental state can have an immense impact on the health of your heart.
Mental Health and its Impact on the Cardiac System
The heart is a part of the cardiovascular system. The main functions of this system involve the transport of oxygen, hormones, and nutrients to cells throughout your body as well as the removal of metabolic wastes such as carbon dioxide and nitrogenous wastes.
According to British Heart Foundation (BHF) 2020 statistics, there are around 7.4 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK. Nearly 170,000 people in the country die by heart and circulatory diseases each year, which is more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK. 44,000 of people who die of heart and circulatory diseases are under the age of 75.
Research suggests a two-way relationship between stress, depression, and heart disease. For example, symptoms of depression are three times more common in patients who suffered an acute heart attack than in the general population. However, this correlation goes the other way round: while having a heart attack may increase the risk of depression, being diagnosed with depression may increase the chances of developing heart disease.
In recent studies, emotional distress is recognized as a risk factor for coronary artery disease. Why? Because common lifestyle habits typical for depression are similar to those that may lead to cardiovascular disease. These include poor sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, obesity, smoking, and excessive alcohol use.
Anxiety and depression may also affect your heart by:
- Increasing the risk of unhealthy lifestyle
- Increasing the rate of atherosclerosis
- Increasing cortisol levels (stress hormone)
Also, studies show that stress can contribute to cardiac arrest and heart attack. When you experience acute or chronic stress, your body naturally releases stress hormones in response, to help prepare your body to handle stress. These hormones will also cause your heart to beat more rapidly and your blood vessels to narrow to help push blood to the center of your body. Your blood pressure will increase.
After your emotional reaction decreases, your heart and blood pressure should return to normal. However, if you experience ongoing, chronic stress such as relationship issues or problems at work, your heart doesn’t have a chance to recover, which can lead to heart disease.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are real illnesses that can negatively impact your whole body, including your cardiac system.
Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and exaggerated stress response are highly treatable conditions. Psychological treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), along with regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, and other deep relaxation techniques are excellent treatment options that alleviate the symptoms of mental distress and improve long-term cardiovascular health.