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Dossier: Healthy heart

How the mind affects the heart

It’s not just diet and exercise that have a major impact on our heart health, but also our mental and emotional well-being. In this interview, cardiac psychologist Mary Princip explains how the mind affects the heart.

Text: Ruth Jahn

When was the last time that you felt the close links between your heart and your thoughts and emotions?

Two completely different events spring to mind. The first was when my partner asked me to marry him and I felt my heart literally leap for joy. The second occasion was when I was in a plane and the turbulence was so bad that I thought the oxygen masks would drop from the ceiling at any moment.

What do the two situations have in common?

Feelings, regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, have a direct impact on our heart. It’s all down to evolution. When faced with a sabre-toothed tiger or other danger, it used to be essential for survival for the heart to beat fast and reliably to be able to size up the risks in an instant and stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. The sympathetic nervous system, which regulates stress response, plays an important role here. Hormones cause the heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels to rise, and the blood thickens, reducing the risk of bleeding to death in a fight.

Nowadays we don’t have to fight sabre-toothed tigers...

No, we’re now faced with different kinds of stress, such as an excessive workload or the struggle for recognition at work. And our heart reacts in a similar way to prehistoric times. The same reactions are observed under stress: blood pressure and heart rate are elevated, the blood thickens and the heart beats less dynamically. These are all factors that can have a chronically negative impact on the heart.

«The same reactions are observed under stress: blood pressure and heart rate are elevated, the blood thickens and the heart beats less dynamically.»

How does your heart know whether you’ve received a marriage proposal, are sitting in a plane that you think is about to crash, or you’re way behind in your work again?  

Your heart has no idea! It’s about how you react to specific situations and what you think and feel. After the marriage proposal I was relaxed and laughed a lot. This normalises the heart rate and hormones, and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system’s counterpart – the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s important for stressful episodes to be followed by a phase of relaxation. With chronic stress, irritation or worry, a threatening situation essentially becomes the norm, which can have a negative impact on the heart.

But not all stress is unhealthy.  

Short-term stress is usually harmless, However, long-term stress can take a real physical and mental toll on your health. It’s about the difference between my expectations and those of the people around me, and what I can achieve with my resources.

How can I tell if I’m putting my heart under too much strain?

Prolonged stress can cause you to become uptight, unbalanced or irritable and make it hard to concentrate. The body also sends out warning signals, such as palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, loss of appetite or fatigue. People suffering from chronic stress also tend to withdraw socially, drink or smoke more, or get less exercise.

«The body also sends out warning signals, such as palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, loss of appetite or fatigue.»

It’s generally known that not enough exercise or the wrong diet can be harmful to the heart, but how do thoughts and emotions affect heart health? Are there any statistics?

Psychosocial factors account for almost a third of all risks for cardiovascular diseases. The impact is comparable with that of obesity or diabetes. Only smoking is worse for the heart.

What other factors have a negative impact on our heart?  

The heart can be affected by a lack of social support as well as personality traits such as a tendency towards hostility. Negative emotions such as depression and anxiety or states of exhaustion such as burnout or chronic sleep disorders also pose a certain risk.

Does our heart need a bit of TLC?

Definitely! The heart welcomes any form of relaxation, happiness, togetherness, exercise or pampering.