The connection between heart health, physical fitness and emotional balance is a much straighter line than most people realize.
According to a recent study conducted by the John Hopkins Medical Center, there is evidence of a two-way relationship between heart disease and depression. The study concluded that people with depression but no previously detected heart disease appeared to develop heart disease at a higher rate than the general population.
Todd Van Buskirk, director of integrated care for Porter-Starke Services, agrees.
“Stress makes us feel threatened,” Van Buskirk explains. “Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood our body as part of the flight or fight syndrome. Those hormones increase our heart rate and blood pressure.”
That’s fine if we are only under stress occasionally, Van Buskirk says. However, if we suffer from chronic or constant stress, heart disease can result from the accelerated heart rate and blood pressure.
Improper Stress Management
Angie Cerniglia, MA, AMFT, LPC, is a marriage and family counselor at New Leaf Resources, which has offices in Lansing and Crown Point. She not only sees a direct connection between extreme stress and heart disease, but many indirect connections as well.
“If we have too much stress to handle, we sometimes resort to behaviors that are just as bad or even worse for us,” Cerniglia says. “Alcohol abuse, improper diet, lack of sleep, smoking—all can be the result of improper stress management. Any and all of those can contribute to heart disease.”
Van Buskirk says that one of the problems is that people think behaviors such as smoking or drinking help them relieve stress, when just the opposite is true.
“People think certain behaviors help them cope,” he says, “but the truth is, smoking and drinking increase heart rate and blood pressure even more. So it becomes double trouble, with the heart being taxed by the stress and the behavior.”
Signs and Symptoms
Cerniglia says another issue is that many people don’t realize they are suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression overload.
“They know they are unhappy,” Cerniglia says, “but they don’t really understand why. They think their stress level is normal, when it’s really sky high.”
Cerniglia shares a checklist people can use to try to help them determine if they are suffering from emotional imbalance.
“If you feel out of balance, out of sorts, then your body is trying to tell you something,” she says. “If you have no motivation, or no energy, that’s a major symptom. Some people can’t sleep, and others want to sleep all day. Both are internal warnings that something’s amiss.”
A feeling of being overwhelmed is also common, according to Van Buskirk.
“When people feel they are losing the battle, they shut down,” he says. “They tend to isolate and emotionally regress.”
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
But, there is also a connection between a healthy lifestyle and stress management.
“It’s important for all of us to have coping skills to deal with the stress that enters our life,” Cerniglia says. “And that begins with getting out of our shell.”
“Movement is key,” Van Buskirk adds. “People need to move, physically and emotionally.”
Sharing one’s feelings with a family member or confidant is of paramount importance.
“Talk to a friend, or your pastor, or your doctor,” Van Buskirk says. “Share your feelings and fears.”
Someone may recommend counseling, so don’t be offended or angry if that happens.
“A therapist can walk with you on the journey back to emotional balance,” Cerniglia says. “Both physically and emotionally. As they get to know you, they can help you develop the specific coping skills you need.”
“There’s a stigma attached to professional counseling,” Van Buskirk says. “But it’s important to look past that.”
A Positive Approach
Both Cerniglia and Van Buskirk encourage exercise, maintaining a positive attitude, not smoking, not drinking too much coffee, enjoying a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight, and getting the proper amount of sleep.
“All of those actions are signs that stress is being handled in a positive manner,” Cerniglia says.
Maintaining a positive attitude about treatment and holding the belief that our actions can have a beneficial effect on our own health are very important. A person’s attitude seems to have a powerfully favorable effect on his or her ability to make behavior and lifestyle changes that are often necessary to reduce the risk of having future heart problems.
That connection leads to a much healthier lifestyle.