Heart Pangs? Stress, Not Love, May Be The Culprit

Remember your own heart on Valentine’s Day.

With all the focus on romance and love over the Valentine’s Day holiday, the most important aspect of the heart is often overlooked — its health. February is National Heart Month and a time when Americans should remember to include heart-healthy tips on their February checklist of Valentine’s Day cards and chocolate kisses.

According to a 2004 survey by the American Heart Association, approximately 79 million Americans have one or more forms of cardiovascular disease, with 72 million experiencing high blood pressure. While various factors contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure, such as poor diet, smoking, and lack of exercise, stress is among the leading causes of heart problems.

The American Psychological Association’s 2007 Stress in America survey found that three quarters of Americans surveyed had experienced physical symptoms in the last month as a result of stress. Furthermore, the study found that nearly as many respondents experienced psychological symptoms including irritability or anger, feeling nervous, lack of energy and feeling as though they could cry.

“Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, as is the case with heart health and stress,” says psychologist Dr. Andrea Delligatti, President of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. “People tend to overlook their emotional state when worrying about major health issues such as heart problems and thus cope in unhealthy ways such as smoking, drinking and being inactive. In the long run such behavior will only exacerbate health problems. However, learning how to properly manage your stress has enormous physical and psychological benefits.”

The Pennsylvania Psychological Association offers these tips for a healthy heart:

Identify unhealthy behaviors that increase your risk of heart disease. Talk to your physician or psychologist — no two people are alike and some treatment or risk-reduction strategies may be inappropriate or even harmful. If stress is contributing to your risk and increasing your unhealthy behaviors, a psychologist can help you define and analyze your stressors, and develop action plans for dealing with them.

Avoid trying to fix every problem at once, if possible. Focus instead on changing one existing habit (e.g. eating habits, sedentary lifestyle). Set a reasonable goal and work toward meeting it. Make time for yourself at least two or three times a week. Even ten minutes a day of “personal time” can help refresh your mental health outlook and slow down your body’s stress response system. Turn off the phone and spend time alone in your room or exercise or meditate to your favorite music.

Ask for support. Accepting help and support from those who care about you can help alleviate stress and reduce your risk of heart disease. Build a support network from your friends and family. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of managing the behaviors associated with heart disease you may want to talk with a psychologist.

“Maintaining a healthy heart is an ongoing process,” says Dr. Delligatti, “and it is important not to become overwhelmed. Take small steps to manage your stress in healthy ways and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, friends or a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist, when you need it.”

To learn more about stress and mind/body health, visit the Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s Web site, www.papsy.org, or the American Psychological Association’s Consumer Help Center at www.APAhelpcenter.org.