What to Know About Mental Health and Your Heart

By Guest Blogger: Janine Standish, Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Youth/Adult Yoga Instructor

What’s important to know about mental health and your heart?

Heart disease is traditionally thought of as being linked to a lack of physical activity.  Did you know that our mental health can have an impact as well?  Emotional responses, thought patterns and overall attitudes about stress and impinging stressors have been found to be equally important.  The way in which we manage stress is correlated with our physical well being.  The American Heart Association (AHA) has noted that high blood pressure and circulation problems can result from prolonged exposure to stress. Our emotional response to stress appears to dictate the severity of impact on our cardiovascular system.  Moreover, severe depression has been found to not only worsen existing heart conditions, but also increases the possibility of developing heart disease.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) research links prolonged exposure to stress from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety and Depression to potential cardiac challenges. Such experiences have the potential to cause calcium build up within the arteries and heart disease.  There is also evidence that this correlation has the potential to go both ways, as those who experience cardiac events have a greater chance of experiencing mental health issues in response to these medical challenges (i.e., anxiety about death/disability, physical pain, financial challenges).  Given the interconnected nature of heart and mental health, it is imperative that we develop strategies and routines that actively address and prevent such challenges.

5 Tips for attending to heart health and mental health:

Breath, Mindfulness and Meditation.  Many people underestimate the impact of attending to our breath, as it is an involuntary function of our bodies.  However, breath is a powerful tool that can transform our life if we learn to gain mastery over it.  It is the quickest and most efficient way to calm our nervous system, as it is impossible for our nervous system to be in hyperarousal (fight or flight) if our breath is calm and regulated.  Stress is often external to us, and therefore we lack control over how and when it shows up in our lives.  While we cannot always control the stressors coming at us at any given moment, we have the power to change our reaction to the stressor.  The key to managing stress is practicing non-reactivity when faced with a stressor.  Breath work, mindfulness and meditation practices are crucial in grounding us and therefore minimizing the impact that stress has on our system.  It has been found that stress and trauma are literally stored in our cellular memory. Meditation practices are imperative to assisting us in releasing stress from the body.  Learning to stay grounded in the present allows us to fully experience life in the current moment, without becoming over focused on the challenges of the past or creating anxiety about the future.  There are many resources for learning how to manage breath and improve your ability to be present, whether it be through mindfulness exercises or movement based practices such as yoga.

Gratitude.  Engaging in a gratitude practice is a primary way to attend to our wellness. Focusing on what we are grateful for has actually been shown to create a shift in our neurochemistry – it literally changes our brain chemicals.   Did you know that research shows that gratitude equates to greater overall happiness and satisfaction with life?  It’s true! Gratitude is one of the single most effective pathways to a happier you. There are a variety of ways gratitude can be a total game changer.  Grateful individuals have been found to enjoy deeper relationships, tend to be more goal oriented, have increased energy, improved sleep, higher self esteem, as well as being more resilient and relaxed.  Challenge yourself to start your day by listing three things you are grateful for in your life.  Research demonstrates that gratitude practices are more effective when we engage in the physical act of writing our grateful thoughts out. Pairing mindfulness/meditation practices with a gratitude journal is particularly helpful and a wonderful way to start the day.

Connection. Social support has been found to not only positively impact recovery from cardiac events, but it has been documented that having positive, supportive relationships is a protective factor against developing severe disease and physical pain.  Social connection is particularly relevant in the midst of this global pandemic.  Finding creative ways to remain socially connected is important for our overall wellness.  It is easy to get caught up in the daily grind (working from home, managing distance learning, dealing with the challenges of our “new normal”).  Each day consider how you will carve out time to connect with those most important to you – both within and outside of your home.  Be sure that your social connections are a balance of giving and being nourished.  Reciprocity is the key in relationships and the basis for healthy emotional bonds.

Movement.  Many of us have been confined to our homes or are spending far less time out in the community than usual with the current COVID pandemic.  This more sedentary lifestyle has likely impacted daily movement in some way.  People have reported they are struggling with sleep and lack of energy.  Ensuring the we are moving our bodies affords us the opportunity to not only improve our physical well being, but also our mental health.  When our nervous system responds to a stressor,  it prepares our body by releasing chemicals that will support a “fight or flight” response.  The challenge of 2020 is that our nervous systems are relatively archaic in their response to stress, as there are limited circumstances in which we would actually need to physically fight or run.  We are therefore often left frozen in fear, saturated in brain chemicals that are meant to activate us.  Physical activity is one strategy for releasing these unwanted neurochemicals like cortisol, which has been shown to change brain structure and function with long term exposure. For example, yoga is a wonderful movement based exercise for physical and mental wellness.  It has been found to lower our heart rate, naturally regulate our breathing, decrease anxiety and regulate sleep. Going outside is another strategy.  Getting outdoors increases our chances of getting our bodies moving and engaging in physical activity. Furthermore, it lessens the chances of suffering from Vitamin D deficiencies, which have been linked to heart disease amongst other illnesses.  When sunlight hits our skin, our body releases nitric oxide into our blood vessels which helps to lower blood pressure.  This is important, as high blood pressure has been shown to increase the risk of stroke and heart disease.  Getting outside for a walk, a bike ride or engaging in other activities benefits both heart health and mental health!  

Balance exposure to media. Whether it’s the news or social media platforms, we are constantly bombarded with information via the technology at our fingertips.  While this affords us the opportunity to stay connected and efficiently work from essentially anywhere, it’s also important to recognize that potential impact of the information we are receiving.  We are all guilty of mindlessly scrolling through our phones, which can be dangerous as we are not cognizant of the messages we are absorbing or the impact they are having on our emotional well being.   For example, many people only post the best version of themselves on social media – the perfect “selfie”, the things they love about their partner, their child’s successes.  What we don’t often see are the difficulties others face.  This leaves us with only a highlight reel of their life.  Subsequently, we compare that small snippet of their life to our diverse emotional experience, which many times leaves us feeling inferior or as if our lives are less valuable, fortunate or otherwise.  Another example would be the way in which highly sensationalized media stories can trigger the stress response in our body.   Recognizing what triggers us is important as daily, consistent exposure to such can yield emotional and physical consequences.  Quantum physics research has found that our thoughts actually create biochemical changes in our body, and therefore it is important to consider what we are giving our energy to, as this will impact the manner in which we think and go about our day.  It important to balance being informed without risking being overly saturated with information that has the potential to trigger your stress response and cause hyperarousal in your nervous system. 

For parents and caretakers on the tips above: Remember that modeling is the most powerful form of learning for children.  The most important thing you can do to support their physical and emotional well being is to model healthy habits.  If they see you committed to and attending to the tips above, they will likely follow suit.  Initiate and encourage open conversations about wellness within your family and create shared routines that address the above areas.

Helpful links for more information



For more tips from Janine Standish, follow her on Instagram @peacefulcalmhappy  

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of The American Heart Association | American Stroke Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

The American Heart Association’s blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.