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The emotional side of heart health

An illustration of a woman sitting with her legs pulled up and her head on her knees.

Stress management and positive emotions may be good for your heart. Discover seven ways to boost your heart and your mental health.

Hearts have long been connected to emotions in culture and literature—broken hearts, stolen hearts and getting to the heart of the matter are just a few examples.

It turns out these links are more than metaphors. Science shows that our emotions can have profound effects on our hearts—and therefore our health.

Emotions that can hurt

In large part, the harmful effects of emotions are due to stress. Under that umbrella fall negative feelings such as hostility, anxiety and depression.

According to experts, the way these negative emotions affect the heart varies depending on whether they are acute or chronic stress.

Acute stress. This is short-term stress from events like a missed deadline, an argument or a fender bender. When it's severe, acute stress can mean trouble.

The process starts with a surge in stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Such surges create a cascade of reactions, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, known as the fight-or-flight response.

Usually, the body returns to its normal state once the stress episode ends, according to the American Psychological Association.

Chronic stress. Long-term stress that persists year after year is known as chronic stress. Over time, the inflammation and elevated blood pressure and levels of stress hormones can take a toll on the blood vessels and heart. The effects of chronic stress can put you at risk for hypertension, stroke or heart attack.

The power of positivity

Some research points to positive emotions as possible antidotes for stress.

For example, the American College of Cardiology reports that happiness and optimism may offer a defense against the negative effects of stress, when it comes to the heart.

Multiple studies have shown that people who enjoy a sense of purpose in life tend to have fewer heart attacks than those who do not.

What you can do

Research continues to explore the possible benefits of positive emotions. In the meantime, the following seven tips from the American Heart Association and other experts can help you keep stress and other negative emotions in check.

  1. Keep moving. Regular exercise can reduce the level of stress hormones in the blood and can work as well as medication to relieve stressors like anxiety and depression. Being active also lowers other heart disease risks, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  2. Reach out. Talk with friends and family every day. Let your doctor know if you're stressed out, anxious or in a down mood, especially if you've been feeling that way for a few weeks.
  3. Laugh out loud. Laughter can lower stress hormones. Watch a funny movie or some video clips, or check out a comic strip.
  4. Make sleep a priority. Being rested helps you think logically and avoid stressful situations. Most adults need seven to nine hours of shut-eye nightly.
  5. Take time for yourself. Make room for activities you enjoy, and pay attention to your own needs.
  6. Try breathing as a way to relax. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  7. Foster positive feelings. Engage in activities that bring a deeper sense of meaning to your life. Maybe that’s volunteering for a cause you care about. Keeping a gratitude journal (in which you write about the good things that happen each day) helps promote positivity, the National Institutes of Health reports.

You can't always avoid stress. But taking steps to manage stress and negative emotions can improve your cardiac risks, even if you already have heart disease. So if you want a healthy heart, take care of both your mind and body.

Reviewed 1/12/2021

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