Heart Health and Mental Health

Heart Health and Mental Health

This year, in keeping with the heart-shaped theme of the month, we thought we’d look at a vital heart-shape; the heart and its health. Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. They are two parts of one entity that work together to keep us healthy and alive and when one suffers, so does the other. Research shows that enduring a mental health condition, like anxiety or depression, can increase your risk of developing heart disease.

Heart Health and the Flight/Fight/Freeze/Fawn

Stress, anxiety, nervousness and worry are all natural human emotions that we all experience from time to time. A healthy pattern would be for our minds and bodies to respond to an event, person or object (i.e. a trigger) that makes us nervous or stressed and then for those feelings to resolve, once that trigger has passed. It roughly takes 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the severity, for our bodies to return to a normal, relaxed state.

However many people keep feeling anxious or stressed, even when the trigger has passed.

Our flight/fight/freeze/fawn response is an alarm response that our bodies have in the face of danger. For example, let’s imagine that in hunter gatherer times, a tiger appeared from the jungle and was staring us straight in the face. Let’s call the appearance of the tiger a trigger.

Our minds and bodies realise it’s a life-or-death situation and the need to channel resources to survive that moment. All of our other systems such as memory, digestion, concentration dial down so that our alarm system can dial up. Our heart rate rapidly increases, our pupils dilate, muscles tense, we start sweating, we may feel the urge to go to the toilet or experience heart palpitations and a dry mouth. Our bodies also release certain hormones like adrenaline to help us get ready to fight the threat. Our minds can either start racing or become paralysed. This process can be referred to as arousal.

Once aroused, there is then a reaction, which is different for everyone and can involve any one of these four:

Fight – Confronting it straight on and into ‘action mode’

Flight – Running away from the danger or escaping

Freeze – Unable to move or paralysed with fear against the threat, like a deer in the headlights

Fawn – Trying to please to avoid the threat, much like a small dog showing it’s belly to a bigger one

Now our world has evolved and bumping into a tiger outside your local café is unlikely, but our bodies alarm system doesn’t discriminate, and will respond to a stressful work email or an argument with a friend in the same way our ancestors might have to a tiger.

It’s important to note that this trigger->arousal->reaction chain is not a danger to our hearts in itself. The problem and risk to our heart health occurs when we are exposed to repeated stress, over and over again on an ongoing basis. In this scenario, our alarm systems don’t have the time to turn off and can get stuck. When our bodies are in a constant state of arousal, whether that be in a depressed or anxious state, it can have serious long-term implications for our physical well-being. Essentially, if our hearts are constantly in a state of stress, this can cause long term health conditions like coronary heart disease (CHD).

The Heart Foundation share these links between anxiety, depression and heart disease:

  • “Anxiety, depression, and coronary heart disease (CHD) are common conditions and often occur together
  • Heart disease is the heart condition most closely linked with depression
  • While less is known about the links between anxiety and heart disease, many people with anxiety also have depression
  • Depression is associated with an unhealthy lifestyle and can affect the recovery of people with coronary heart disease and increase their risk of further heart problems, such as another heart attack.”

Better Health Vic Gov page also share these facts about mental health and heart conditions*:

  • “Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can increase the risk of heart disease. Feeling lonely or being socially isolated can also affect your heart health.
  • Anxiety and depression are common after a heart attack or heart surgery.
  • Anxiety, depression and coronary heart disease are common conditions and often occur together.
  • Depression and anxiety are both independent risk factors for heart disease.
  • Depression can affect the recovery of people with coronary heart disease and increase their risk of further heart problems, such as another heart attack.
  • People who experience loneliness or social isolation have an increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

Tips and Tricks

Here are a few quick tips on how to help heart health through psychological strategies

  1. Managing stress-levels – If you are feeling stressed, strategies to help your body your mind regulate help exit out of the ‘arousal and reaction’ chain. The faster and more smoothly you calm your mind and body when it is stressed, the greater the chance of sustaining heart overall health and well-being.

Mindfulness, relaxation, and grounding exercises are at your doorstep, easily accessible through are apps such as Calmify, Headspace and Smile. They are all able to support you in bringing your mind and body to baseline level and exit arousal.

You can also speak to your GP about gaining access to a psychologist or counsellor for further support.

  1. Positive mental health habits – These should be built into your life much like tooth brushing, something you do every day regardless of how you feel and include:
  • Sleep: Gaining the right amount of sleep is crucial to your overall well-being. Going to bed at the same time every night, having a night routine and clocking-off from work/technology at least an hour before will support you in a restful sleep. The aim is to wake up feeling rested.
  • Social connection: Social isolation and loneliness is linked with increased chance of anxiety and depression. Reach out to family and friends for social connection. Alternatively, there are some amazing support groups available, oftentimes through your local council. You can also join an art class, exercise group or walking group to help connect with others.
  • Exercise: Moving our bodies releases endorphins and helps us release any stress or anxiety our minds and bodies hold. Reach out to your local gym to see what fun classes they have on or try go for a brisk walk every day. Speak to your GP for further exercise ideas that may be better suited to you.
  • Healthy eating: Ensuring your body is getting the right nutrients is pivotal to mental and physical well-being. If you are unsure of what a healthy diet looks like, speak to your GP for further support.
  • Talk to someone: Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you need to speak to someone. Helpful and positive social connections can increase our sense of mental and physical well-being and improve heart health.

If you’d like further information on the matter, speak to your trusted GP and discuss the best ways that you can support yourself.

Further information is also listed on the websites below, including Better Health’s long list of where to access support:

*https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/heart-disease-and-mental-health

*https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/bundles/your-heart/mental-health-and-heart-disease

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