This is a Two-Way Relationship!
Depression and anxiety are both known to relate to heart disease as a cause and an effect. This means that depression and anxiety can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease; cardiovascular disease can increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety; and each may lead to a worse outcome. So important is this relationship that the American Heart Association recommends that depression be recognized as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, like hyperlipidemia, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking.
The British Heart Foundation found that having a heart condition significantly affects a person’s mental, emotional and psychological health. Anxiety was the most common symptom, followed by feeling low, depressed or tearful, and scared. Almost 40% of survey respondents felt alienated, that other people didn’t understand how they were affected.
What about Stress?
Ah yes … the elephant in the room – stress!
Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or under pressure, anxious and even panicked. It can originate from many sources (for example, work, relationships, financial constraints, health challenges, loss of a loved one etc); and a stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.
The impact of stress differs from person to person, says the US National Institute of Mental Health: some people can cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others. And not all stress is bad – for some, it can be a great motivator and focus for productivity for some; but for others, it can leave them feeling unable to cope and more likely to “snap” at the slightest issue. People also vary in how they experience stress physically and emotionally – some have mainly digestive symptoms, others suffer from headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.
Whilst it is normal to feel overwhelmed and pressured sometimes, the British Heart Foundation flags chronic stress as particularly problematic.
“Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.”
Stress can lead you to habits that undermine your health. For example, you may eat more than usual, or choose foods that are not healthy, but which are comforting (often high in far or sugar); you may drink too much alcohol or smoke; you may not be physically active; you may withdraw and isolate yourself from support, or distract yourself through less sociable or unhealthy pursuits.
The link between stress and weight gain is also clear. This is only on due to what and when you eat and drink, but also to how your body actually responds to what you’ve put into your mouth. And so whilst you might cut down on your quantities, you will likely not see this reflected in your waist line…until you have dealt with your stress levels too!
What also matters is how you respond to stress. According to American Psychological Association,
“Studies have shown that if stress makes you angry or irritable, you’re more likely to have heart disease or a heart attack. (…) The way you respond to stress may be a greater risk factor for heart problems than smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.”
OUR TIPS to Improve Your Heart Health Today
There are many ways that you can support yourself towards better mental and emotional health. In our other articles, we cover the importance of healthy eating, getting as much physical activity as you can, making sure that you have enough good quality sleep, building supportive connections and community, feeling that your life has meaning and purpose, and developing your spirituality.
To these we will add another tool which is increasingly recognized as an invaluable for stress management and resiliency: self-compassion, which is defined as your ability to turn understanding, acceptance, and love inward. Research carried out by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (US), “demonstrated that mindfulness self-compassion significantly increased life satisfaction, as well as decreased depression, anxiety and stress”. It is also strongly associated with healthy habits such as diet and exercise, as well as more satisfying personal relationships.
So, before you end your day, make sure that you have taken some time to love and care yourself!