It’s like the old song says, “You’ve gotta have heart. All you really need is heart.” We can’t live without it, so it’s important to take care of this vital part of ourselves. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, about 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020, and more than 126 million people had some form of cardiovascular disease between 2015 and 2018. Worldwide, cardiovascular disease kills 17.9 million people every year, and by 2030 the number is expected to grow past 23.6 million.
The Mind-Body Connection
We tend to think of heart disease as simply a physical problem. And it is physical, but it’s also tied to our mental health. “We have known for a long time the mind-body connection but we often ignore it, John Whyte, M.D. and chief medical officer at WebMD, told me in an email. “Numerous studies have demonstrated a relationship between depression and anxiety with heart disease.”
Whyte goes on to explain the mind-body connection in terms of how depression promotes heart disease. “The mental strain of depression sends a signal to your body that it needs to protect itself from danger. Your immune system responds by sending out an army of pro-inflammatory molecules that can fight off invaders like viruses and bacteria as well as heal and repair wounds and damaged tissues,” he explains. “These inflammatory chemicals are very helpful in the short term. In an ideal situation, they perform their jobs quickly and then disappear. But when you experience chronic depression, they stick around and do a lot of damage—specifically creating inflammation. Several studies have shown, for example, that depressed people have consistently higher levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, or CRP, a potent marker of inflammation that can sharply increase the likelihood of developing heart disease.”
Whyte observes that depression also increases interleukin molecules that cause your blood vessels to constrict, increase your blood pressure levels and promote blood clots that clog your blood vessels. He cites studies showing that depression causes the cells that help your heart vessels dilate and constrict to lose their ability to open and close. This can lead to angina, which can be an early sign of plaque and obstructions in your coronary arteries, he warns.
Mental Habits That Contribute To Heart Disease
In addition to depression, other forms of mental strain also promote heart disease, according to science. Understanding them can help you build a stronger heart.
- Holding Grudges. Studies show that holding on to grudges is linked to heart attacks. This strain also increases your stress levels, which contribute to high blood pressure, heart problems, lowered immunity and inflammation.
- Lack of Self-compassion. A recent study found that people who practice self-compassion have lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Those who scored higher on self-compassion had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup than those with lower self-compassion. These indicators are linked to lower risk of heart attacks and strokes—years later.
- Perfectionism. Research shows that perfection can be toxic and aiming for it contributes to mental health problems, psychological strain, burnout and risk of heart attacks.
- Impatience. Science shows that hurry and impatience alter heart functioning and promotes heart attacks.
- Overworking. Studies show that overworking on a regular basis causes heart disease, stress strokes and sometimes death. The Japanese call it karoshi— translated as death from overwork, usually in the form of a heart attack.
- Pessimism. Pessimists die earlier than optimists and fail to climb the career ladder as far and fast than their optimistic cohorts. Patients optimistic about their heart disease, in contrast, live an average of 15 years longer than pessimistic heart patients. And a long-standing body of research also shows that optimism is linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and pessimism tied to higher risk.
- Hostility.Peoplewith seething anger or frequent thoughts that others can’t be trusted or angered that others are out to get them, have shorter telomeres—protective tips at the end of our chromosomes that determine our lifespan— and are more prone to cardiovascular disease, metabolic illness and death at earlier ages.
- Rumination. Rehashing worries over and over in your mind—as when you replay worry about a disagreement with your boss—can predict heart disease. If you ruminate, stress hangs around in your body long after the reason for it is over in the form of elevated heart rate, prolonged high blood pressure and increased levels of cortisol. People who ruminate have more depression and anxiety and cardiovascular illnesses.
- Thought and Feeling Suppression. Research shows that the tendency to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings or avoid or suppress negative thoughts and feelings is linked to stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity.
- Anxiety. A large body of data links anxiety disorders with cardiac health, specifically heart disease. Anxiety increases the risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack or stroke.
Use Your Mind To Beef Up Heart Health
You can beef up your heart fitness by following the advice of neuroscientists and paying attention to the ways you use your mind. Present-moment awareness determines how much stress you have and makes a difference in the health of your heart.
- Watch and regulate your anger and hostility, bringing presence of mind to them, much like you would observe a blemish on your hand.
- Notice if you’re attributing false motives or jumping to conclusions about the intentions of others. Start paying attention to how often you vilify people, over-personalize situations or make yourself a victim of circumstance.
- Practice forgiveness. Studies show that forgiveness versus holding grudges minimizes stress-related disorders and promotes heart health.
- Cultivate an optimistic outlook by focusing on the upside of a downside situation or the opportunity in the difficulty.
- Keep your focus in the present instead of ruminating about what has already happened (in the past) or about what might happen (in the future).
- Bear witness to negative or unpleasant thoughts—instead of avoiding or reacting to them—with mindfulness meditation, bringing your mind into the present moment.
- Curb your perfectionism.
- Meditate regularly. Even five or ten minutes of meditation a day can lower blood pressure, restore calm in your body and bring inner peace.
- Avoid overworking, slow down and practice work-life balance along with self-compassion and self-care on a regular basis.