Three Tips for Staying Heart Healthy

Hint: Positive emotions can be good for your body.

Posted Sep 21, 2017

By Meredith McCormick and Angela Grippo

Research on brain-body interactions is helping us understand how emotions affect our bodies, and learning about those interactions can actually help you identify strategies to help keep your heart healthy.

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Source: Thinkstock

We know from research that emotions influence the way the brain and heart communicate with each other. Our emotions can be extremely beneficial—or very detrimental—to heart health.

Here are three simple but research-based strategies that promote healthy heart function.

1. Stay positive

Positive emotions, such as happiness and pleasure, not only make us feel good but may also improve heart function. So it’s important to make a conscious effort to stay positive.

Find silver linings in tough situations; remind yourself often of the people and activities in your life that make you happy, and avoid dwelling too much on the negative.

Negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger can hinder the ability of the heart to effectively pump blood and oxygen throughout the body, increasing the risk of heart disease. For instance, someone who is depressed or feeling sad might have less energy for exercise and less desire to eat well, which can contribute to poor cardiovascular health. Depression or sadness experienced over a long period of time also can put extra stress on the heart, increasing the risk for heart disease (Carney & Freedland, 2017).

Sometimes focusing on the positive is easier said than done. If that’s the case over an extended period of time, seek professional help.

Your mind, and your heart, will thank you.

2. Use effective stress-coping strategies

Chronic stress is a pervasive issue in modern society. Stress can come from many sources, including home, work, relationships, financial difficulties, and health problems (to name a few). Although you might not be able to eliminate stress from your daily life, you can use strategies to cope with stress, benefiting your mental and physical health.

For example, you can talk about problems with friends and family, ask for help when you need it to solve everyday problems, make an effort to relax and unwind, and develop a realistic exercise routine.

These stress-coping strategies help reduce feelings of anxiety and increase positive emotions, therefore reducing chronic strain on the heart by helping it to relax (Sgoifo et al., 2014). This relaxation can lower the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

3. Establish meaningful social connections

According to a recent survey, rates of loneliness have doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent since the 1980s (Wilson & Moulton, 2010). When you feel lonely, you may experience more stress, sadness, and anxiety. This causes your body to suffer as well.

On the other hand, when you connect with others, the brain shifts its communication with the heart through hormones and other biological changes, allowing the heart more opportunities to relax. This promotes healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making you more equipped to cope with stress (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Staying connected with others helps to keep the heart healthy as we experience daily mild stressors as well as long-term stressors.

We have studied and documented this effect in some animals, too.

In fact, research conducted with rodents has greatly increased our understanding of how our social environment impacts heart health. Mouse-like creatures known as prairie voles, for example, are especially social. Like people, these animals form long-lasting relationships and have strong family ties.

When prairie voles spend time with their family members, they are able to cope with stress much more effectively than socially isolated prairie voles (McNeal et al., 2017). This research has taught us about the importance of meaningful social bonds for people, which promotes appropriate brain-heart communication and improve heart health.

With a better appreciation of how emotion is linked to the heart, you can focus on staying positive, use strategies to cope with chronic stress, and form positive connections in your life. Managing daily stressors and increasing your happiness is crucial to the health of both mind and body.

Meredith McCormick has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Fort Lewis College. She is collaborating on projects with Northern Illinois University researchers on the psychological and biological benefits of social interactions.

Angela Grippo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses in neuroscience and the brain. Her research is focused on the interactions of emotions, social experiences, the heart and the brain.

References

Cacioppo S, Grippo AJ, London S, Goossens L, Cacioppo JT (2015). Loneliness: clinical import and interventions.  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 238-259. 

Carney RM, Freedland KE (2017).  Depression and coronary heart disease. Nature Reviews Cardiology, 14, 145-155. 

Sgoifo A, Carnevali L, Grippo AJ (2014). The socially stressed heart: insights from studies in rodents.  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 39, 51-60.

McNeal J, Appleton KM, Johnson AK, Scotti ML, Wardwell J, Murphy R, Bishop C, Knecht A, Grippo AJ (2017). The protective effects of social bonding on behavioral and pituitary-axis reactivity to chronic mild stress in prairie voles.  Stress, 20, 175-182.

Wilson C, Moulton B (2010). Loneliness among older adults: a national survey on adults 45+.  Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research, Washington DC: AARP, http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/loneliness_2010.pdf.