Many Emotions Can Damage the Heart
Most people know that anger is bad for your heart's health, but loneliness and depression affect your heart, too.
Talking About Your Emotions
Not surprisingly, people have an easier time discussing their blood sugar and cholesterol than speaking about their psychological state. "People don't like being depressed but, in our society, there is a certain stigma about things like depression," Burg says. "When patients are not as forthcoming about these issues, it makes it that much harder to identify and treat."
"A person who has suffered a heart attack is likely to say things like, 'Of course I'm depressed, I just had a heart attack,'" Burg says. "But very often, when we take a closer look, what we find is the symptoms of depression predate the heart attack.
"The depression after a heart attack, which we would call an adjustment problem or adjustment disorder, actually dissipates within a matter of weeks. If the symptoms persist, we're really talking about a depression independent of the heart disease." These emotions, when prolonged, "are worth paying attention to, because of the potential effect they're having on the cardiovascular system."
It's Tougher on Women
In cases of depression, women outnumber men 2 to 1, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, chief of women's cardiac care, Lenox Hill Hospital, who runs a practice for heart disease in women. Goldberg points out that many women, adopting what's called the "tend and befriend" attitude, internalize their anger and disappointment instead of expressing these emotions, and become nicer and more nurturing. "You can be that quiet person that holds everything in and still have the increase in stress reactions."
Goldberg, who wrote Women Are Not Small Men: Life-saving Strategies for Preventing and Healing Heart Disease in Women, also cites a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins. The researchers found that sudden emotional stress could result in severe weakness in the heart muscle, making it seem as though the person was having a heart attack. This "broken heart syndrome," says Goldberg, was more common in women.
"I think it's a common thing that women put themselves last on the list and feel very time-pressed to go to exercise or take down time for themselves," says Goldberg, who feels it's especially important to help women identify their support network.
Balancing the Emotions
"Any imbalance in an emotional state - when one emotion dominates or overrides the others - can predispose one to heart disease," says Frank Lipman, MD, an integrative physician, board-certified internist, and licensed acupuncturist. "Learning to deal with emotions is extremely important."
But studying these emotional states is difficult, concedes Lipman, the author of Total Renewal: 7 Key Steps to Resilience, Vitality and Long-Term Health. "It's not something you can measure easily." Nonetheless, emotions can get stuck in the body. When you release these emotional holding patterns physically, he says, you're releasing emotional states, as well.
Lipman has facilitated these releases in patients through acupuncture. He also refers some patients to body workers and healers, who are able to shift energy in the body.