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The Head-Heart Connection

Did you know that your mental health also affects your heart health? While we think of our physical health, diet, and activity level when assessing our heart health, our mental health is often overlooked. Along with risky health behaviors associated with mental health issues, research shows that the chemical and biological factors that trigger mental health issues could also influence heart disease. February is Heart Month and it's time to start paying attention to this important connection.

The Connection

Many mental health issues can increase your risk for heart disease. People experiencing mental health issues over a long period of time can have physiological effects like increased heart rate or blood pressure, reduced blood flow to the heart, and heightened levels of cortisol. Over time, this can lead to calcium buildup in the arteries, metabolic disease, and heart disease.

Additionally, some (not all) medicines used to treat mental health disorders have also been associated with obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, all of which increase the risk for heart disease. Lastly, mental health disorders can also affect a person’s coping strategies and lifestyle choices, especially if they go untreated. Behaviors like smoking, an inactive lifestyle, trouble sleeping, or failure to take prescribed medicines can all play a role in heart health as well.

Everybody reacts to stress and mental health issues differently, but it is important to pay attention to this head-heart connection. Some of the most commonly studied mental health disorders associated with an increased risk of heart disease are:

  • Mood Disorders like major depression or bipolar disorder can significantly increase your risk for heart attack or stroke. Clinically depressed people are twice as likely to experience a heart attack for as long as 10 years after their first depressive episode.

  • Anxiety Disorders including generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, panic disorders, and phobias cause people to respond to certain objects or situations with fear, dread, or terror. This puts extra strain on your heart. A severe anxiety attack can even mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

  • Chronic stress can contribute to abnormally high blood pressure and circulation problems. How you handle stress influences how your cardiovascular system responds. Stress can increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which can impact your blood pressure and heart rate

Cardiovascular Recovery & Risk for Mental Health Problems

After a heart attack, stroke, or invasive procedure like open-heart surgery it is normal to experience depression or anxiety. The immediate shock of a near-death experience along with the length of recovery and fear that another, possibly more serious event could occur, can contribute to mental health issues. These mental health issues can complicate recovery from a heart attack, stroke, or another cardiac event. It is important to get help right away and not dismiss these feelings. According to the APA, “ Prolonged depression in patients with cardiovascular disease has been shown to contribute to subsequent heart attacks and strokes.”

What You Can Do

  • Don’t ignore mental health concerns. It is important to get help right away. Talk to your healthcare provider about how you are feeling both physically and mentally. They will be able to refer you to or help you find the treatment or support you need.

  • Avoid trying to fix every problem at once. Finding the help you need will help you manage your mental and heart health, set reasonable goals, and work towards meeting them.

  • Check-in with yourself and your loved ones, especially those dealing with heart disease or stroke.

  • Look for ways to reduce stress in your life and learn how to better manage your stress.

  • Find local mental health treatment and support resources from The Hub.

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