Mental Health and Your Heart

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By News Team on February 8, 2022

You know the physical risk factors for heart disease—inactivity, smoking and so on. But did you know that your mental health can also affect your heart?

“As a general cardiologist, I see the interaction between mental health and cardiovascular health on a daily basis,” says Molly S. Rutherford, M.D., with Carilion Clinic’s Cardiovascular Institute. “Many patients with a history of heart disease also have mental health problems related to their underlying illness.”

The Head-Heart Connection
Stress and depression can increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in your body. These hormones can:

  • Increase your chances of having arrythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Promote the growth of plaque in your arteries
  • Raise your blood pressure and heart rate

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, feeling down can make it harder to make good lifestyle decisions—the kind of decisions that keep your heart healthy.

Complications for Heart Patients
“Heart problems can drive anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression can worsen symptoms and outcomes,” Dr. Rutherford explains. “We know that post-heart surgery patients who are depressed do not do as well long term as those who are not—they have more symptoms, their blood pressure is not as well controlled and they don’t live as long.”

This makes it so important to communicate with your health care team about how you’re feeling mentally if you have a history of heart disease.

“If your doctor brings up your mental health, please don’t take it as judgement or lack of belief that your symptoms are real,” says Dr. Rutherford. “We have to take care of both your mental and physical health to provide you the best outcomes.”
 
Improve Your Mood, Protect Your Heart
On a positive note, many of the actions you can take to support your mental health will help protect your heart health, too. This includes:

 
Seek Help When You Need It
While the above can be very effective and are great places to start, remember: You don’t have to go it alone when struggling with your mental health.

 “It’s often easier for people to accept that they might have a physical health problem than an emotional one,” notes Dr. Rutherford. “Folks will end up in the cardiologist’s office with physical symptoms that are due to anxiety and depression.”

So how can you tell if what you’re dealing with could be related to mental health?

The following are considered symptoms of depression when experienced for longer than two weeks:

  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Excessive crying
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, irritability, sadness or unworthiness
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Unexplained aches or pains

And the following are considered symptoms of an anxiety disorder:

  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty letting go of feelings of worry
  • Feelings of restlessness or of being on-edge
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating

“If you are struggling with your mental health, please reach out to your health care provider, and please consider getting into therapy,” says Dr. Rutherford. “You can feel better, and you deserve to feel better.”

Your head—and your heart—will thank you!

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