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The Head-Heart Health Connection
Mental health conditions and heart conditions—both of which take many forms—have several similarities. For starters, the prevalence of each is particularly high in the U.S., with nearly one in five adults living with a mental illness and one in three adults living with at least one type of cardiovascular disease. These diseases also have a direct link to each other, both in a behavioral sense and in a physiological sense.
Below we’ll examine how your heart health and mental health are connected, as well as ways to keep both in good shape.
Many forms of mental health issues can affect heart disease
The most common mental health disorders are linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Depression and anxiety symptoms, for instance, often cause people to exhibit behaviors that lead to cardiovascular problems, such as poor dieting habits, unwillingness to exercise or live an active lifestyle, and smoking or finding relief in drugs and alcohol.
Mental illnesses also physically change the brain in ways that affect the heart as well. Prolonged exposure to hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, both of which are brought on by stress, can cause high blood pressure and elevated heart rate. Couple this with the fact that those suffering from the disorders aren’t getting enough exercise; these hormones can cause your heart to become overworked and strained. Not to mention these hormones also cause artery constriction, which— over time— can lead to plaque buildup and vessel damage that cause heart attacks and strokes.
Having heart disease or stroke can cause anxiety or depression
In the same way that depression and anxiety lead to unhealthy heart behaviors, having poor heart health can impact your mental health, as well. It’s natural for people who have had a heart attack or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease to feel depressed and anxious about their health. This can lead to feelings of discouragement that are strong enough to keep patients from going to doctor’s appointments, taking their meds, or advocating for their health. If these hopeless feelings progress, people may start self-medicating with behaviors and substances that can cause significant damage to the heart, creating a cycle that leaves people with a feeble heart and an ailing mind.
What can you do to prevent these?
While this cycle may seem never-ending, there are actions you can take to keep yourself as healthy as possible. If you find yourself feeling concerned about the state of your health, consider these approaches below:
- Talk to a healthcare professional
Since your mental health and heart health are intertwined, it’s important to consistently communicate with your doctor about how you feel both physically and mentally. Your primary care physician will be able to provide you with advice on how to take care of yourself properly, and they will be able to refer you to the correct specialists, such as a psychiatrist or therapist if they feel you need them.
- Form healthy habits from the get-go
Humans are habitual beings, meaning it’s incredibly difficult for us to deviate from a schedule or way of living once we’ve become accustomed to it. Hence why it’s imperative to develop healthy habits while you are in good health to help prevent some of the behaviors that could lead to heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
For example, healthy eating habits go a long way in keeping your heart healthy. From preventing weight gain that can put extra strain on the heart to keeping the arteries clean and plaque-free, a well-balanced diet is something that you should be striving for. Healthy eating habits can also have positive effects on your mental health by regulating your mood and reducing irritability. If you think your diet can use a bit of improvement, think about signing up for a weight loss program that teaches healthy habits. Healthy eating, like any other habit you form, takes practice before it becomes natural, and once it does you’ll have a greater chance of retaining this skill when you’re feeling unwell.
If you’re looking for a habit that specifically focuses on your mental health, keeping a journal is a great way to reduce your stress and free your thoughts. Not only does it allow you to express your feelings in a safe, controlled way, but it also helps keep a record of your emotions over time. If you’re afraid that traditional pen and paper leaves you vulnerable to other people reading it, you can download a secret diary app that protects your entries with passwords and other forms of protection. This form of expression is great for freeing your mind.
- Fix problems one at a time
Since your heart and mental health are so intertwined, it may seem like the right thing to do to tackle everything at once. However, that line of thinking can leave you feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. Instead of trying to work on every area that needs improvement, pick one thing and focus on changing that first— like making healthier meal choices or going for a walk every day. As that one thing becomes easier to handle, focus on another area that could use some improvement. This strategy will make the task of getting healthier become more manageable, less daunting, and can reduce your stress.
Remember that it’s okay to pretend that you have the energy to make these small improvements, even if you don’t. Instead of waiting until you feel better to make healthier lifestyle choices, try to push yourself to make them even when you’re not feeling your best. If you’re having trouble finding the motivation within yourself, reach out to family, friends, and professionals to help give you the strength you need to keep yourself healthy. It’s crucial to view your health holistically and remember that your physical and mental health are connected. If you strive to keep your mind and heart in good condition, then the rest of your health will thrive as well.