February is American Heart Month – a month that is dedicated to awareness and education about heart health.
You have probably by now heard how important healthy eating and exercise habits are for heart health. We are all too often reminded today how heart disease is currently the number one killer in North America. Even though thanks to increased education and awareness heart disease is on the decline, the number of people suffering from or affected by some form of heart disease is still staggering.
What is most unfortunate about this whole scenario is perhaps the fact that for the most part, heart disease is completely preventable. It is known today as a lifestyle disease, and current science teaches today, that our habits govern it much more, than any genetics ever can.
So as I mentioned we know that healthy eating and regular exercise are critical for a healthy cardiovascular system, but did you know that your emotions also have an affect on your heart health?
It is true. The heart is no longer just a symbolism of emotions. Our emotional state actually has a huge direct effect on the long term health of our heart, and we are going to talk about just that today – how a happy heart, leads to a healthy heart.
Emotions, Stress and Your Heart
Just as most of us know that heart disease is today’s number one killer, most of us are also aware that stress has an effect on our heart health. According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, research shows an association between psychosocial and marital stress and heart disease, especially in women.
According to the American Heart Association, more and more evidence is presenting a relationship between the risk of cardiovascular disease and environmental and psychosocial factors.
So what is the underlying mechanism at work behind all this?
That answer is not short and simple, but here is a very brief overview. What we know for sure so far is that during heavily emotional or stressful states there is a rise in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
A surge in adrenaline caused by severe emotional stress causes the blood to clot more readily, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Increased or constant levels of cortisol cause various disturbances in your body, including artery damage. Damaged arteries are in turn weaker, and become an even bigger problem in people who may be additionally suffering from high blood pressure.
All of these factors weaken the cardiovascular system and make it more prone to heart disease.
Here Comes Happiness to the Rescue
In the most recent study, published on February 17, 2010 in the European Heart Journal, researchers have conducted a long term study where our state of happiness seems to be directly correlated to our heart health. Over 1700 subjects, of which about half were men and half women, were studied over a 10 year period.
The conclusion of this study states that increased “positive affect“ was protective against 10-year incidence of cardiovascular disease. This suggests that preventive strategies may be enhanced not only by reducing depressive symptoms but also by increasing positive affect in our lives.
Although most of us may know this, not enough of us take it seriously or practice this on a regular basis. Previous studies have shown that a “happy state” is associated with increased survival, improved immune function, and lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. On the other hand “negative states” such as anger, hostility, anxiety and depression are associated with a higher risk of incident coronary heart disease.
The study showed that participants who engaged in states of happiness, joy, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment on a regular basis showed protective benefits decreasing their chances of heart disease. It is not about enforcing such a state 100% of the time, which in itself alone can lead to stress, but this being our primary state. Participants who exhibited the most anxiety, anger, depression or despair, also showed the most risk factors for heart disease.
There are many variables which may be directly and indirectly leading to the conclusions obtained, and researchers are cautious not to mislead anyone with what they discovered, but generally speaking a happier state of being is correlated to a healthier cardiovascular system.
What Does This Mean For You?
In our culture, we often use phrases like “they broke my heart” or “they cause me heartache” to signify emotional pain of various kinds. The heart has long been a symbolism of our emotional state, but today, I think one needs to look at this symbolism much more literally.
This study is definitely pointing I believe, at something that needs to be broadcasted more often in our society and much louder. Too many people get caught up in stress, anxiety and depression. Too many of us are attached to status and material items, as well as all too many things that are so transient and in the grand scheme of things so petty and meaningless. A lot of us get emotionally charged all too easily, and flare our egos at the smallest of disagreements. Taking on the victim mentality has become an epidemic. Being sad seems to be more acceptable and draw more attention, than feeling happy and satisfied with life. But it does not have to be this way.
I therefore invite you today to reflect a bit on your personal state of being and ask yourself the following questions:
1. How do you begin each day? With dread and heaviness, or joy and enthusiasm?
If you answered dread and heaviness, you need to ask yourself why? Why are you subjecting yourself to conditions that do not bring you happiness and ultimately good health in your life?
Is it your job? That can definitely be worked upon. For help with this topic I highly recommend, the material of Karl Staib from Work Happy Now.
Is it your partner? Consider the following two articles to get started with looking at this situation differently: “Why Isn’t My Partner How I Want Them To Be?” and “Who’s Dragging You Down?”
Is it a sense of worth, purpose or meaning? Consider reading as a starting point to exploring this area: “Our Search for Purpose and Meaning.”
2. How do you approach problems or difficulties in your life? With anxiety and negativity, or with hope and optimism?
If you answered with anxiety and negativity, you need to explore what lies at the root of such thoughts and feelings. It may be your upbringing, or it may be a series of events that have spiraled your life out of control. Consider reading the works of Eckhart Tolle and Wayne Dyer to explore these areas of yourself further.
3. What one thing can you do each day, to bring more happiness into your state of being and life?
Commit to start that today!
Remember, happiness truly starts with you. In the end it is never about your house, your job, society, your partner or your kids.
We each have a choice in how we choose to approach, see and deal with things. So make the choice that not only makes you feel better, but is healthier for your heart and whole body too!