Although we refer to being “heartbroken” from a distressing event, we often forget or ignore the very real connection between our hearts and minds. And that connection goes both ways, with our physical health affecting our mental health and vice versa.
Despite all the numbers that show our risks of heart disease, finding a number for how staying positive impacts our heart health can be tough. But the impact of mental health on heart health is undeniable.
The Vicious Cycle of Hearts and Minds
We often bottle up, stuff down or brush away tough emotional experiences, especially during crises, explains Stephanie Gallian, a counselor with IHC Associates practicing at Adventist Health Medical Group – Gresham Station Family Practice clinic in Oregon.
“The mind-body connection is a powerful thing,” says Gallian. “Emotions must come out—and if you don’t find healthy ways to release them, the mind will find unhealthy and often physical ways to let that negativity out.”
At the same time, struggling with health problems, including cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, can increase mental health problems like depression. In fact, about a third of people who suffer a heart attack develop depression afterward.
Fortunately, the mind-body connection works the other way too—with positive behaviors and thoughts, Gallian explains. She notes that many activities that reduce stress and anxiety—like regular cardiovascular exercise, eating a balanced and plant-heavy diet, and enjoying fresh air and sunshine—are activities also known to positively impact heart health.
Six Ways to Stay Positive
Jaci Cress, director of spiritual care for Adventist Health in Walla Walla, Washington, offers several specific ways you can stay positive—and, in doing so, help your body, mind and spirit.
- Journal an Attitude of Gratitude: Actively practice gratitude by writing down five things for which you are thankful—anything from food and shelter to a good meeting and a great parking spot. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons found that keeping a gratitude journal can increase happiness by 25 percent. < http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude>
- Take a Mini Sabbatical: You don’t have to be a professor to need and enjoy a break. Take a mini sabbatical—a brief period of rest and relaxation—several times during the day. “Sometimes I will shut the door to my office, turn on Pandora and just breathe for a few moments,” Cress says.
- Walk It Off: Take a few minutes to regroup and recharge by taking a short walk—outside, if possible. The activity helps your heart and releases pleasure hormones called endorphins, which increase your positive feelings.
- Weave a Web: Make a point developing a web of support by connecting with the people you value. “Human connection is vital to our health and our outlook,” Cress points out. If you don’t have a support network, join a service organization, small group or special-interest club to meet people who share your interests and hobbies.
- Restore Your Spirit: Feed your spirit through music, reading, hobbies and community. If you don’t have a spiritual community, consider participating in PrayerWorks, a 24/7 online prayer community where you can post your prayer requests, concerns and struggles and let others know you’re praying for them too.
- Let It Go: “Studies have shown that resentment and an unforgiving spirit can actually raise your blood pressure and lead to other chronic health problems,” Cress explains. “Forgiveness is essential not only to a healthy spirituality but also a positive outlook and good physical health.”
How to Find Support
You may also need or want the support of a professional. Talk with your health care provider if you find you are struggling to stay positive and experience symptoms like:
- Trouble sleeping or waking up
- Crying excessively
- Using substances and other unhealthy ways to cope
You may also benefit from visiting with a counselor referred by your provider or a trusted friend. A minister or close friend can provide a lot of helpful support too.
Chaplains are another great resource in your journey to increase positivity and deepen spirituality. “Our job is to listen and to help you discover what resources you already have, what you value, and what brings you meaning and purpose in life,” says Cress.
Positive Changes Now for a Better Heart Later
Learning to stay positive doesn’t happen overnight. Practicing activities now to improve your positivity will leave you more prepared to deal with crises in the future. “Get those behaviors firmly established as habits, so you don’t have to frantically learn how to do them in the middle of tough times,” Gallian suggests. “Make those things second-nature, just part of your daily life routine.”
One of the most important numbers to your heart health isn’t a number at all. It’s just a little + sign that reminds you staying positive is a powerful tool for your total health—mind and body, heart and soul.
If you would like to speak with a counselor from IHC Associates in the Portland area, just call 503-740-1971.