For centuries the heart has been regarded as the source of emotions. But how do your emotions affect your heart health? Negative emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, hatred and sadness have been associated with having consequential adverse effects on the heart and cardiovascular system. These negative emotions can trigger a cascade of events that can contribute to heart disease. Lifestyle factors including diet and exercise are considered to be some of the main triggers of heart disease, and are important indeed, but emotional distress, not to be undermined, can also be a major contributing factor.

Take A Ride On The Stress Hormone Highway

Emotional distress is initially perceived through your nervous system. This distress can trigger the fight or flight response in the sympathetic division of your nervous system causing an immediate release of stress hormones from your adrenal glands. These stress hormones include cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is typically related with acute stress, while cortisol is usually elevated with chronic stress. As these hormones are released into your bloodstream, they immediately trigger the stress response. Adrenaline causes your blood vessels to constrict and your heart to beat faster. Over time, this can develop into hypertension. Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol cause the inner lining of your arteries to not function properly, which research has now proven is an initial step in the formation of atherosclerosis, or plaque build up in your arteries. Elevated cortisol can also increase cravings of comfort foods such as sweets and processed foods. These excess calories are then directed to be stored as fat around your visceral organs, often referred to as “belly fat”. This type of fat is the most detrimental type of fat because it actually releases hormones and other chemicals that promote inflammation, in turn encouraging chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease. Recent research has also demonstrated that emotional distress can cause cells to release certain chemicals that promote inflammation, such as interleukin 6.1 It is this chronic inflammation that is at the root of many diseases. This combination of events can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

Effective Strategies To Manage Your Stress

It is not a matter of whether you will experience emotional distress or not—it is how you respond to it that can be a make or break situation not only with your heart health, but with your overall health. You do not want to wait and take a reactive approach to your stress and heart health. Proactive measures need to be attended to on a daily basis. Effective strategies will be different for everybody. Somebody may feel the best benefits with spending some time in prayer or meditation while somebody else may experience the best stress buster going for a walk or a run. If you do not have daily strategies to help manage your stress, here are some foundational strategies that can keep stress from making your health a mess.

  • Adequate Sleep—most sleep experts agree 7-9 hours of sleep per night are the optimal range; it is also helpful if you can get to sleep at approximately the same time each night.

  • Regular Physical Activity—find out what you enjoy the most, whether it’s an invigorating walk, run or swim, spending some time out gardening, a yoga, pilates or tai-chi class, or a challenging workout with your personal trainer; physical activity is a great way to burn off some stress and tension.

  • Learn Relaxation Techniques—regular deep breathing, mindfulness training, prayer and meditation or laughter therapy, find out which of these techniques give you the most satisfaction.

  • Nurture Yourself—consider getting a massage, listening to some music you enjoy, spending time in nature-taking a stroll along the beach or in the woods—you deserve it.

  • Nurture Relationships—whether you enjoy spending time with your friends or family, healthy relationships foster a healthy life. Volunteering with different groups has also been shown to be a healthy choice. In fact, a recent study revealed that people that volunteered at least one hour per week lowered their cholesterol and inflammation compared to those who did not volunteer.2

1. “An Inflammatory Pathway Links Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Risk to Neural Activity Evoked by the Cognitive Regulation of Emotion” by Peter J. Gianaros, Anna L. Marsland, Dora C.-H. Kuan, Brittney L. Schirda, J. Richard Jennings, Lei K. Sheu, Ahmad R. Hariri, James J. Gross, and Stephen B. Manuck (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.012). Biological Psychiatry, Volume 75, Issue 9 (May 1, 2014), published by Elsevier.