The impact of our emotions far surpasses our mental state of mind. Negative emotions such as stress, depression and anger, also can harm us physically – a conclusion supported by a recent finding that neural circuitry directly affects the functioning of the heart, meaning that a person’s mental state could increase their risk of heart attack and stroke.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with about 600,000 people dying each year. That’s one out of every four deaths. To better understand how emotions affect heart health, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh conducted a survey of 157 healthy adult volunteers (controlled for genetic and behavioral heart disease factors). They were asked to regulate their emotional responses to unpleasant pictures while their brain activity and artery health were monitored.
The results, published in the May, 2014 edition of Biological Psychiatry, revealed that individuals who showed higher levels of brain activity when regulating negative emotions also showed higher blood levels of interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, which indicates progressive damage to blood vessels supplying the heart and brain. This is better known as atherosclerosis – a process which can lead to stroke and heart attack. Researchers contend that the findings support the belief that emotions are linked to the heart and that the connection may lie in the regions of the brain where emotions and inflammation are regulated.
The study’s findings highlight the importance of brain-based efforts to prevent heart disease and the value of examining how other conditions may be affected by emotional health.
Here is a broader look at how anxiety and depression affect physical health:
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Fortunately there are many ways to improve mental health, including therapies, medications and lifestyle changes. Here are things everyone can do to improve their emotional outlook:
- Keep a daily journal of events and emotions. Studies have shown that brief journaling sessions can aid self-discovery, establish new goals and spur motivation.
- Designate a time each day when you will go “tech-free” and focus your attention on relaxation and organizing your thoughts. More than 30 percent of American adults spend at least seven hours a day looking at electronic screens. A recent study concluded that those who aren’t glued to technology are less stressed and more productive.
- Surround yourself with reminders of happy memories, such as photographs and souvenirs. Nostalgia may feel bittersweet, but research shows that thinking about a good memory for just 20 minutes per day can help ward off depression.
- Find a creative outlet. Expressing yourself through any form of artistic expression can provide a way to vent stress, while expanding your strengths and skills.
- Try mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to be effective in promoting stress reduction and productivity. A UCLA study showed that the brain actually gets stronger as meditation is practiced over time, improving memory, attention, thought and self-confidence.
- The value of physical activity and a healthy diet can’t be stressed enough. At the very least you should get 2.5 hours per week of moderate aerobic activity, or 1.5 hours of vigorous aerobic activity coupled with at least two 30-minute strength training sessions per week. Eat a well-rounded and nutritious diet, incorporating vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, proteins and very little sugar.