Listen to your heart: Practice emotional wellness

By Julie Jordan
Published February 14, 2019

Most people know what they need to do to take care of their heart: eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise, avoid consuming too much alcohol, and don’t smoke. But what if there are other, less obvious, factors affecting heart health? Research says there are, and they have to do with our emotions.

Extremely stressful events like the loss of a spouse, a natural disaster, or losing your life’s savings, can trigger both heart attacks and stress cardiomyopathy. This is called broken heart syndrome. While its difficult to prepare your heart for this kind of shock, making healthy choices daily (those listed above and below) will protect your heart from a buildup of plaque and help buffer you from unexpected, overpowering stress.

Depression also negatively affects the heart. The American Heart Association reports that one in three heart attack patients is depressed. Research shows that individuals with symptoms of depression have a higher risk for a heart rhythm disorder or atrial fibrillation, which increases risk for stroke. Those who suffer from depression are also at a greatly increased risk for heart disease.

Anxiety often goes along with depression. Anxiety is associated with rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure. Panic attacks and heart attacks share very similar symptoms. If you are experience severe chest pain, go to the emergency room. Cardiologists should be able to distinguish between the two. 

Chronic stress like work stress is another common culprit. It initiates the fight or flight response which elevates cortisol levels, damaging the heart’s artery walls and may lead to heart disease. Chronic stress also leads to negative behaviors like drinking too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure.

To maintain a healthy heart and decrease depression, anxiety and stress, practice emotional wellness, and take care of your head-heart connection. According to the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, emotional wellness is the ability to successfully handle life’s stresses and adapt to change and difficult times. NIH offers six strategies for improving your emotional wellness.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Georgia Crisis & Access Line or GCAL for help at 1-800-715-4225.  

Six strategies for improving your emotional wellness by NIH:

1. Brighten your outlook
​People who are emotionally well, experts say, have fewer negative emotions and are able to bounce back from difficulties faster. This quality is called resilience. Another sign of emotional wellness is being able to hold onto positive emotions longer and appreciate the good times.  

  • Remember your good deeds. Give yourself credit for the good things you do for others each day.
  • Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from what went wrong, but don’t dwell on it.
  • Spend more time with your friends. Surround yourself with positive, healthy people.
  • Explore your beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life. Think about how to guide your life by the principles that are important to you.
  • Develop healthy physical habits. Healthy eating, physical activity, and regular sleep can improve your physical and mental health.

2. Reduce stress
Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Stress can give you a rush of energy when it’s needed most. But if stress lasts a long time—a condition known as chronic stress—those “high-alert” changes become harmful rather than helpful. Learning healthy ways to cope with stress can also boost your resilience.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. Just 30 minutes a day of walking can boost mood and reduce stress.
  • Build a social support network.
  • Set priorities. Decide what must get done and what can wait. Say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
  • Think positive. Note what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day, not what you’ve failed to do.
  • Try relaxation methods. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or tai chi may help.
  • Seek help. Talk to a mental health professional if you feel unable to cope, have suicidal thoughts, or use drugs or alcohol to cope.  

3. Get quality sleep
To fit in everything we want to do in our day, we often sacrifice sleep. But sleep affects both mental and physical health. It’s vital to your well-being. When you’re tired, you can’t function at your best. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes and focus better. Take steps to make sure you regularly get a good night’s sleep.

  • Go to bed the same time each night and get up the same time each morning.
  • Sleep in a dark, quiet, comfortable environment.
  • Exercise daily (but not right before bedtime).
  • Limit the use of electronics before bed.
  • Relax before bedtime. A warm bath or reading might help.
  • Avoid alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine late in the day.
  • Avoid nicotine.
  • Consult a health care professional if you have ongoing sleep problems.

4. Cope with loss
When someone you love dies, your world changes. There is no right or wrong way to mourn. Although the death of a loved one can feel overwhelming, most people can make it through the grieving process with the support of family and friends. Learn healthy ways to help you through difficult times.

  • Take care of yourself. Try to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Avoid bad habits—like smoking or drinking alcohol—that can put your health at risk.
  • Talk to caring friends. Let others know when you want to talk.
  • Find a grief support group. It might help to talk with others who are also grieving.
  • Don’t make major changes right away. Wait a while before making big decisions like moving or changing jobs.
  • Talk to your doctor if you’re having trouble with everyday activities.
  • Consider additional support. Sometimes short-term talk therapy can help.
  • Be patient. Mourning takes time. It’s common to have roller-coaster emotions for a while.   

5. Strengthen social connections
Social connections might help protect health and lengthen life. Scientists are finding that our links to others can have powerful effects on our health—both emotionally and physically. Whether with romantic partners, family, friends, neighbors, or others, social connections can influence our biology and well-being.

  • Build strong relationships with your kids.
  • Get active and share good habits with family and friends.
  • If you’re a family caregiver, ask for help from others.
  • Join a group focused on a favorite hobby, such as reading, hiking, or painting.
  • Take a class to learn something new.
  • Volunteer for things you care about in your community, like a community garden, school, library, or place of worship.
  • Travel to different places and meet new people.

6. Be mindful
The concept of mindfulness is simple. This ancient practice is about being completely aware of what’s happening in the present—of all that’s going on inside and all that’s happening around you. It means not living your life on “autopilot.” Becoming a more mindful person requires commitment and practice. Here are some tips to help you get started.

  • Take some deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose to a count of 4, hold for 1 second and then exhale through the mouth to a count of 5. Repeat often.
  • Enjoy a stroll. As you walk, notice your breath and the sights and sounds around you. As thoughts and worries enter your mind, note them but then return to the present.
  • Practice mindful eating. Be aware of taste, textures, and flavors in each bite, and listen to your body when you are hungry and full.
  • Find mindfulness resources in your local community, including yoga and meditation classes, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, and books.