Treat Mental Health to Protect Your Heart

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 07, 2022
Treat Mental Health to Protect Your Heart

Biochemical changes related to your mind affect your heart. Learn how your mental health may increase your risk of cardiovascular problems.

For a long time, doctors thought that heart disease and depression came together so often because people who were unhappy behaved differently. They might be less likely to take care of themselves or more likely to smoke, drink, or eat junk comfort food.

That’s true, but increasingly research is showing that behavior isn’t the only link.


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How mental health affects your heart

It’s known that mental health issues can increase the chance of heart trouble. For example, veterans are at higher risk of heart disease, mainly because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat. In couples in which one or both partners have PTSD, fights cause more anger, and your heart is more likely to react.

People who have had difficult childhoods and experience racism or discrimination are more likely to have high blood pressure, a reactive heart, and heart disease.

In women, PTSD or depression are especially likely to cause heart issues.

In a study that followed participants over 18 years, women who had two or more divorces ended up with a heart attack risk similar to that of smokers and people with diabetes. Even just one divorce raises a woman’s heart attack risk. Men need to have two or more divorces to put their heart at risk, and they also benefit from remarriage. Women don’t. Divorce stress can affect you even decades later.

Being worried about losing your job can affect your heart as well.

Even stress that isn’t painful puts a burden on your heart. Heart attacks more than doubled in one German city during days when the German team was playing in the soccer World Cup.

The physiology tying emotions and heart issues

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, stress, or PTSD, such conditions may directly increase your heart rate and blood pressure, cut blood flow to your heart, and raise your blood levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Over time, these physiologic effects can lead to calcium buildup in your arteries, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Animal studies have shown that stress triggers bone marrow to make white blood cells, which in turn produce inflammation and ultimately encourage a buildup of fatty plaque on artery walls. Deep inside your brain, the amygdala processes intense emotions like fear. A 2017 study analyzed imaging tests that measured both activity in the amygdala and artery inflammation in nearly 300 people. It concluded that higher amygdala activity was tied to artery inflammation — and higher risk of heart attack and stroke in the follow-up period, two to five years.

The same team reported on 13 people with PTSD, who took the same scans. More activity in the amygdala again tended to produce more artery inflammation.

How heart disease affects your mind

It also works the other way: depression, anxiety, and PTSD can develop after heart failure, stroke, and heart attack.

Medicines used to treat mental illness may affect your heart as well. For example, antipsychotics are linked to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and death.

You may need to build more stress-relievers like exercise, baths, and music into your week. Improving your diet and quitting cigarettes or other addictions will help protect your heart. You also may need to get emotional support and help changing or leaving a job, home, or relationship that is hurting you. Taking steps to get away from a bullying boss could help you breathe more easily.

Other steps you can take:

  • Seek treatment for lingering anxiety or depression
  • Exercise
  • Lose weight if necessary
  • Improve your diet
  • Quit smoking


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February 07, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN