Nov. 19, 2009 (Orlando, Fla.) -- Next time you're stuck in traffic, try deep breathing exercises instead of honking your horn. It could save your life.
Researchers found that people who have a positive attitude during stressful events are 22% less likely to have a fatal or nonfatal heart attack than those who have negative attitudes.
"This is the first set of studies [looking at a large population] that shows that having positive feelings and positive attitudes during negative events may prevent first heart attacks," says researcher Karina Davidson, PhD, of Columbia University in New York.
"If you're in an uncomfortable situation, do something to distract yourself and take your mind off the problem," she tells WebMD.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA).
The study involved 1,621 adults who did not have heart disease. Participants were videotaped while they were asked a nonstop barrage of questions designed to evoke stress over a 12-minute period.
"For example, we asked how they felt when people showed up late for an appointment or when they weren't able to pass a car that was going too slowly," Davidson says.
Then, the researchers reviewed the tapes, "looking for whether people seemed energetic, excited, enthusiastic or happy -- or whether they seemed hostile or angry," she says.
Over the next 10 years, 129 of the participants suffered a heart attack, eight of which were fatal.
"What we found," Davidson says, "is that people who expressed positive emotions were much less likely to have a heart attack, while those who expressed negative emotions were more likely to have one."
The findings add to growing evidence that our psychological well-being can affect our heart health, says past AHA president Sidney Smith, MD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Optimism and Heart Risk
In a second study, the same researchers asked 2,380 adults without heart disease two questions designed to determine whether they had optimistic personalities.
"The questions were: Are you optimistic about your future? And do you rarely expect things to go your way?" Davidson says.
Over the next 10 years, 274 of the participants suffered a heart attack.
Participants who were considered optimistic based on their answers to the two questions were 12% less likely to have a heart attack than those who were not optimistic, she says.
When telling patients about the findings, Davidson likes to relate her own story. "When I moved to New York, my [mentor] told me, you'll be spending half your life in a taxi, so you can either have a stroke or enjoy the time," she says.
"So now whenever I get in a taxi, I remember his words and use the time to relax, snooze, or listen to music on my iPod. I think of it as an opportunity to have quality time with myself," Davidson says.