The Link Between Mental Health and Heart Disease

Multiple studies have shown a direct link between heart disease and mental health conditions like depression. In fact, 20% to 40% of patients who’ve gone through a major heart event meet the criteria for major depressive disorder.

The link goes both ways — emotional disturbances such as depression or high levels of stress can cause heart disease. And on the contrary, heart disease can affect a patient’s mental health. After all, stress, anxiety, fear and frustration are common feelings that arise after a heart event.

In this article, we’re exploring the links between mental health and heart disease in women. We’ll also discuss the changes you can make to prevent stress from affecting your heart and improve mental health conditions after a heart event.

Stress and Heart Disease

Stress is a natural part of our lives. And it doesn’t always have a negative connotation. For example, being assigned a new project at work or experiencing first-date jitters are both “good” stress.

There’s also acute stress, which is caused by a specific situation like a dentist appointment. Although not as fun as first date jitters, acute stress is also not necessarily a big deal.

The health risks come with chronic stress. Chronic stress is the result of long-term causes, such as working long hours without a clear end in sight or living below the poverty line.

This type of long-term stress puts you at risk of heart disease. High levels of stress can cause hypertension, abnormal heart rhythms, strokes and heart attacks, among others.

A study published in The Lancet shows that during high-stress periods, the amygdala, a region of your brain associated with processing emotions, is active and signals the creation of white blood cells, causing an inflammatory response in your arteries.

The longer your body is subjected to stress, the less opportunity it has to recover and go back to baseline levels. High levels of stress can cause you to live in constant fight or flight mode, increasing your odds of developing heart disease.

The key to preventing stress-related heart disease is controlling your stress. Exercise, meditation, healthy eating, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and learning to manage your emotions can help. But ultimately, you’ll need to address the causes of your stress — easier said than done.

A heart disease diagnosis can be scary. But you can learn to manage the associated stress and live a full life with heart disease. WomenHeart Champions Gwen Mayes and Janet Dennis share their stories and how they’re thriving with heart disease in this webinar with WomenHeart CEO Celina Gorre.

Heart Disease and Depression

There are multiple links between depression and heart disease in women. Did you know that women are twice as likely as men to experience depression? And that women who are depressed are more at risk of heart disease than women who are not depressed?

Long-term mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause changes in the body, like an increased heart rate and blood pressure. Plus, certain symptoms of mental health conditions — such as insomnia, inactivity, or failure to take prescribed medications — can increase the risk of heart disease.

Unfortunately, women who are depressed are twice as likely to experience sudden cardiac death compared to women who are not depressed. Download our fact sheet to learn more about women, depression, and heart disease.

Tips for managing heart disease and depression

Mental health conditions, just like any physical disease, need professional help. Like with heart disease, you want to understand the signs and symptoms of conditions like depression and seek support if you’re experiencing them.

Many people have a preconceived notion of what depression looks like from the outside. But depression is more than your average sadness. These are some of the symptoms you may experience if you’re facing depression:

  • A change in regular patterns of sleep, like suddenly needing a lot more than usual. Or, on the flip side, struggling to fall or stay asleep.
  • Similarly, a change in eating patterns, like overeating or not eating at all.
  • A feeling of hopelessness or dread.
  • Little interest in things that used to be enjoyable.
  • Difficulty staying focused on daily activities.
  • Trouble sticking to things that you were once interested in or motivated by.

Do you suspect you’re experiencing depression? Consider taking an assessment and reach out to your healthcare provider for help. There are also actions you can take, like going to cardiac rehab, exercising and practicing self-care, to help manage your mental and physical health.

Mental health is an integral part of your heart health

At WomenHeart, we often talk about taking control of your heart health, staying positive and thriving with heart disease. But if you’re experiencing major depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, it’s not always something you can simply wish away. Especially when faced with difficult situations like a heart disease diagnosis, it’s important for you and your health care providers to consider every aspect of your well-being for you to have the best chances of thriving and surviving.

If you’re having a hard time or feel like you’re not getting the help you need, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health specialist or find a local support group. Our WomenHeart Champions are here for you.

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