Minding Your Heart

Originally published January 28, 2015; edited slightly for posting here.


Most everyone knows they should heed their doctors’ advice, including eating healthily, being physically active., and avoiding use or abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Many also understand that managing stress is beneficial for heart health. The word stress is often used to describe a variety of negative emotional or situational states. When people say they are “stressed,” they may be describing feelings of sadness, worry, anticipation, anger, irritability, or other adverse experiences. They may attribute poor sleep, work performance, eating choices, or recreational vices to it.

Whether an individual response positively (rising up to the challenge) or negatively, is in part, related to the individual’s attention. Women are more likely than men to experience distress with cardiac disease. The younger a woman is, the more likely she is to experience distress following a troubling cardiac diagnosis or event. 

Where your attention is, so are your thoughts. Thoughts lead us to feel and thoughts lead us to act. Focus on what you want in your life, rather than attending to what you do not want in your life. For example, when someone goes on a diet she is often telling herself, “I am not going to eat sweets.” Now she is constantly thinking about sweets, trying to avoid eating them, rather than focusing on not eating sweets. It will be helpful for her to focus on eating what she can eat, aligned with her health goals: more fruits and vegetables. By drawing attention to something that she wants, she may soon replace what she was trying to rid.

Here are three areas of attention to help women achieve life satisfaction and well-being that promote heart health. 

  1. Fuel Positive Emotions

When we feel negative emotions, we want to get rid of them. Normal and important to feel a range of emotions. Traditional research has shown that strong negative associations – including depression, anxiety, anger, and hostility – effect heart health . Research also shows that positive emotions – happiness, joy, peace, and contentment – are associated with direct positive effects on heart health. These include attenuating inflammatory response, lowering blood pressure, and maintaining or returning one’s heart to regular rate and rhythm. There are indirect effects, too, such as promoting healthy behaviors, including diet, exercise, and adherence to doctors recommendations. In a clinical trial that I completed in 2017 (after this original article was published) demonstrated positive emotions were helpful to patients with arrhythmias. 

  1. Pursue Self Care

Women are often focused on others ( partners, children, parents, bosses, and colleagues ) and likely to take care of others needs first – at times to the detriment of their physical and/or emotional health. On airline flights, we are all told to place the air mask over our face first, and then assist the child or other person next to us who needs help. a woman cannot take care of others unless you take care of herself First – cliche, but true. Self care covers a broad range: paying attention to emotional well-being and balance, taking care to ask for help or delegating, getting enough sleep, eating properly, and allowing personal time, either by doing nothing or doing something pleasurable simply for the sake of enjoyment.

  1. Engage in Living

When struck by stress, especially after a cardiac diagnosis or even, a common response is to withdraw or avoid. This is usually related to fear, loss of interest, sadness, or even anger. Some patients may be given certain firm restrictions based on their physical health. The road to optimizing wellness – whether prevention or recovery – is to focus on what you can do: attending to the positive experiences and focusing on what is important and how to keep that in your life. You may not be able to run a marathon, but you may be able to run a 5K, be a race volunteer, or a coach to others. All of these roles have value. Where is your attention now?