You eat oily fish, you walk daily, you quit smoking years ago, and you go easy on saturated fats. So, it’s fair to say your heart is in great shape, right? Not necessarily. Here we have a guide on stress and heart disease offering explanations and solutions.  

Connection between negativity and stress

Recent research from Emory University suggests that harbouring negative feelings — such as anger, guilt and hostility — or disregarding mental health issues like depression and anxiety — can put you at high risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

The study  of a large mixed sex sample in the United States — showed that negative emotions and mood states caused elevated levels of C-reactive proteins, which are associated with inflammation in the body and cardiovascular disease. And, surprisingly, the effects were independent of risk factors such as smoking and being very overweight.

In other words, even if you think you are doing ‘all the right things’, if you are neglecting your mental health then you are potentially still exposing yourself to a significant risk factor.

The solution

But what’s the solution? Do we all need to sign up for lifelong therapy to reduce our risk of heart disease? Well, there are two ways of looking at it.

The first option is to reduce or eliminate the causes of stress, anger, guilt, hostility, remove all the unnecessary stress from your life. The other option, then, is to change the way you react to situations that cause you to feel negative. But while some would argue that making diet and lifestyle changes to enhance health is a tough call, at least eating more fruit and veg, or cutting down on red meat, are easily definable challenges.

‘As with all lifestyle changes aimed at reducing heart disease risk, such as stopping smoking or reducing weight, behavioural changes are not easy to achieve — nor do they happen quickly,’ points out Dr Ed Suarez, one of the Emory study authors. ‘The first step towards change is to notice what events individuals respond to with the negative emotion in question.

Who is affected?

The Emory University study found that postmenopausal women were most at risk from mental health-related risk factors, but research from Texas Tech University found that a stress reduction program significantly reduced anxiety in women with existing heart disease.

So whether it's meditation, yoga, journal writing - find something that helps you unburden yourself of daily worries and anxiety. ‘Attaining and sustaining good mental health is just as vital as other factors, such as exercise and diet, in the prevention of cardiovascular disease,’ concludes Dr Suarez.