Head + Heart: How Heart Disease and Mental Health Disorders are Connected

Head + Heart: How Heart Disease and Mental Health Disorders are Connected

This story is brought to you by Healthy Minds Therapy

Story by Liesel Schmidt

If you’re someone who believes in the body’s ability to manifest mental or emotional struggles, you’re not imagining things. In fact, the CDC has documented studies on the correlation between heart disease and mental health disorders.

Much like how physical health involves every facet of the body, mental health is the overarching term referring to emotional, psychological and social well-being, which involves our thoughts, feelings, actions and decision-making—basically all the ways that the brain and the chemical reactions within it operate. For that reason, mental health disorders can affect a person’s mood as well as their behavior, their thinking and their ability to relate to others, both in the short-term and throughout their lifetime. Over the course of time, these mental health disorders impact the body by causing stress on its systems, most notably the heart. But how is one affected by the other—or is it all in your head?

In a way, it is. Studies show that people experiencing extended periods of depression, anxiety, stress and PTSD may suffer certain physical problems including increased cardiac reactivity—in layman’s terms, this refers to increased heart rate and blood pressure—as well as reduced blood flow to the heart and higher cortisol levels. Eventually, all of this can result in calcium and plaque buildup in the arteries, metabolic disease and heart disease.

On the flip side, clinical evidence shows that mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and PTSD can actually develop after such cardiac events as heart failure, stroke and heart attacks. In these cases, mental health disorders are caused by factors including pain, fear of death or disability and financial strain—all of which are associated with the cardiac event and can plague the individual long after the actual danger has passed.

As difficult as mood and brain chemicals can be to regulate, there is sometimes a need for medications. The use of any pharmaceutical comes with certain side effects—and, in the case of a number of medications used to treat mental health disorders, associated risks of cardiometabolic disease have been found. Some antipsychotic medications have been linked with obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, in addition to heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, stroke and death.

“Your heart and mind are more connected than you may realize. That connection is real and it’s powerful. When we neglect our emotional well-being, our body can manifest physical symptoms that effect our quality of life and even become emergencies.”

- Alycia Burant, LPC

The fact that lifestyle choices are incredibly impactful on heart health is not news. However, anxiety and depression are mental health disorders that greatly affect behavior patterns—and, as such, these behaviors can often be destructive and unhealthy. Smoking, adopting an inactive lifestyle, failure to take prescribed medications, drinking and drug use are all examples of coping strategies that someone experiencing a mental health disorder may embrace, simply because they are not capable of making healthier choices. The longer these behaviors are in place, the greater the risk they pose to the heart, resulting in cardiac disease that could eventually cause stroke, heart attacks or death.

There are, of course, ways to avoid danger and treat the issue. It’s important to address mental health disorders early through counseling and therapy as well as finding support to encourage healthy behaviors such as increased physical activity, improved diet and smoking cessation—all of which can reduce the risk of a cardiac event.

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