Taking Care of Your Heart and Mental Health Go Hand-in-Hand

Did you know that poor mental well-being is a critical problem that, if neglected, can lead to serious health complications, such as heart disease?  

Does this mean, not only do I have to worry about my anxiety disorder – but I have to worry about it giving me a heart attack too? And, unfortunately, I can’t sugar coat this one. Yes, anxiety and depression can increase the risk of a heart attack and development of coronary artery disease.  

That’s because, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), “When you experience depression, anxiety or stress, your heart rate and blood pressure rise, there’s reduced blood flow to the heart and your body produces higher levels of cortisol — a stress hormone. Over time, these effects can lead to heart disease.” 

And, of course, there are also the behaviors we’re more likely to indulge in when we’re depressed. For some, that may be smoking and or drinking. For me, when I’m depressed, the probability goes up that you’ll find me eating Hot-N-Ready pizza for dinner and not moving from the couch for hours.  

February is American Heart Month, and it’s a good time to think about what you can do to take care of both your heart and mental health. It’s not like you can just say to yourself, “Hey, self! Stop being so depressed! You’ll give yourself a heart attack!” Mental health treatment doesn’t work that way and usually, saying “Stop being depressed!” has about the same effect as someone telling you to “Relax!” or “Calm down!” when you’re feeling anxious. 

So, first things first: Seek professional help. Talk to your primary care physician, who can treat mental health issues or refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist for additional help. For resources, visit https://bcbsm.com/mentalhealth 

Another piece of advice from the ever-wise Elle Woods (from “Legally Blonde,” of course) —”Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Harvard Medical School has backed this up, stating that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones and also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. So, exercising can help you proverbially kill two birds with one stone — benefiting your mental and physical health at the same time.  

The AHA advises you to start small if you’re not in the habit of exercising or eating healthy. Maybe that’s taking a 30-minute walk every day, which is proven to increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance. When cooking, it could mean substituting ingredients, such as a seltzer water instead of soda, grilled chicken instead of fried chicken, hummus or avocado instead of mayo, and kale chips or zucchini fries instead of French fries.  

Spending time outside every day, even if it means bundling up this winter and just taking a 10-minute stroll around the neighborhood, is also important.  

Some  of spending time outdoors include: Lower levels of cortisol, a boost in vitamin D, increased levels of concentration and creativity, improved mental clarity, memory, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increased energy.  

All in all, as the AHA states, “Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself to break the cycle of feeling down. That could be doing something structured, such as a yoga class or tai chi practice, or something you can do anywhere, such as meditating, listening to music or reading a book.” 

Opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or its subsidiaries and affiliates. 

Find more mental health news and information from A Healthier Michigan here.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Monica Drake 

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