Our body is an integrated system, so every part of it affects the whole. When we injure a limb or develop back pain, we promptly seek medical care, and we may share the details with our friends and coworkers. But when our mental health is compromised, we often keep quiet and hope things will somehow get better.
However, mental health problems don’t just affect our emotional well-being. “All our body’s systems are interconnected,” says Victor Caraballo, MD, vice president of Quality Management and chief safety officer at Independence Blue Cross. “It’s important to recognize that your brain’s moods, emotions, and functions can affect your physical health. And, just as importantly, your physical health affects your brain.”
Heart Disease Can Affect Mental Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. When someone has a stroke or heart attack, they may experience many different emotions, such as depression and anxiety. They may even develop post-traumatic stress caused by physical pain, fear of death or disability, or even financial concerns related to the cost of their care. They may withdraw from their usual activities because they’re worried about triggering another cardiac event. Or they may be embarrassed that they cannot perform at their previous level.
“Any major event that causes stress to your body can lead to anxiety or depression, and cardiac arrest is a big one,” Dr. Caraballo says. “Get ahead of it. Treat it early. Address the symptoms.”
Mental Health Issues Can Affect Heart Health
Just as heart problems can affect someone’s mental health, mental health disorders can lead to heart trouble. Depression, anxiety, and long-term stress have all been shown to negatively impact heart health. These conditions can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure and reduce blood flow to the heart, which in turn can lead to heart disease.
In addition, people who are depressed or anxious may be more likely to smoke, drink, or use substances; have an inactive lifestyle; or fail to take prescribed medications. All of these actions can negatively affect heart health. Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, people who have experienced adversity in childhood, and people who face discrimination or live in underserved communities also have a higher risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
Treating Mental and Heart Health Holistically
In light of the connection between cardiovascular and mental health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that health systems create integrated teams of behavioral health and cardiology professionals. These teams can work together to teach patients about the relationship between mental health and heart health. The agency also recommends making mental health screenings a part of comprehensive care after a major heart disease event.
Individuals experiencing mental health struggles should seek counseling or other support from family, friends, and other people who have shared experiences.
“Unfortunately, some specialists, and even primary care providers, are afraid to start the mental health conversation because they don’t feel equipped to effectively treat it,” Dr. Caraballo says. “We need better training and resources for both providers and patients.”
“When we don’t feel well mentally, we don’t feel well physically, and the other way around,” he adds. “That’s why exercising, eating well, and maintaining a positive outlook is so critical. The synergies of feeling well physically can help us feel better mentally.”
Resources for Support
The American Heart Association offers an online support network where people can share their medical stories, offer insights and tips, and Healthy For Life® Educational Experiences.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.