The riskiest emotions for your heart
‘It’s going to give me a heart attack’ is a throw away line we use when someone or something causes us stress. Little do we realise how much truth there is in the statement and the physical impact of our emotions.
What triggers a heart attack is sometimes surprising, as experts will reveal at a free public health forum at the University of Sydney on Wednesday night.
One such trigger, research shows, is our emotions, which can make or break our hearts.
You can die from a broken heart
“In bereavement studies, people would all tell me they felt the pain in their heart, not in their head,” says Dr Thomas Buckley, a cardiovascular researcher at the University of Sydney.
While we intuitively say we’re broken hearted when we lose someone important to us or a relationship breaks, people can actually die from a ‘broken heart’.
“Grief, for some people, is the most stressful life event and the individual nature of the response to grief means for some people it can be more intense than others,” Buckley explains.
Research has revealed that, the day after a heart break, our risk factor for a heart attack increases by 21-fold. After a week, our risk is still six times higher than normal and the risk period can extend up to six months.
“With grief there are fluctuations of emotions,” explains Buckley, adding that studies he has conducted show that the overwhelming waves of emotion are hard on the heart.
“We saw [people] going through bursts of emotions and then having bursts of physiological response with it — so you get this surge in blood pressure and surge in heart-rate.”
Grief is not the only emotion that physically impacts the heart.
When your ‘blood boils’ with anger
Not only does chronic conflict in relationships increase the likelihood of high blood pressure, feeling intense anger makes you 8.5 times more likely to have a heart attack. In fact, about three per cent of all heart attacks are anger-related.
“We studied a cohort of individuals admitted to Royal North Shore Hospital who had confirmed heart attacks,” Buckley says, “then we did very, very detailed interviews determining what exactly they were doing in the 48 hours before they had their heart attacks.”
Buckley and his team discovered that, in the two hours before their heart attacks, a proportion of the patients said they had experienced “intense anger”.
“What we know from literature is that there is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, tightening of blood vessels,” Buckley says of anger’s physiological response. “We also know that intense emotion can change the clotting factors in the blood and those combination of factors together make us highly prone to blood clots or blockages of coronary arteries which essentially most heart attack are.”
Don’t stress if you feel a bit irritable or annoyed from time to time though, Buckley counsels.
“Anger is something we all experience, and I think we all intuitively know it’s not good for us when we have severe anger,” he says. “It’s important to know it was severe anger [that increased risk], it wasn’t being irritated… interestingly most of the episodes we observed were related to arguments with either partners or other people or driving… it was almost rage.”
Anxious in mind and heart
Many people in the midst of a panic attack feel like they’re having a heart attack, which may not be too far off.
Anxiety, like anger, triggers the stress response, raising our heart rate and releasing hormones that may contribute to fatty plaque accumulation in the arteries. Although acute anxiety is associated with a 9-fold rise in the risk of heart attack, it is a complicated chicken or egg relationship, Buckley says.
“Anxiety does raise heart rate and sometimes heart rate can raise anxiety as well,” Buckley explains.
“Anxiety is frequently observed or reported in people having a heart attack, so whether anxiety does trigger the heart attack — which our research suggests it does — it’s not always as clear what the episode of anxiety is related to whereas with anger we were able to identify the specific anger trigger episode.”
The murkiness of the relationship between anxiety and heart attacks needs further unraveling, Buckley says.
“We are planning to do more work to elicit whether or not the anxiety is actually a triggered anxiety, triggered by a life event,” he explains, “or is actually, as some have suggested, a pre-myocardial infarction symptom itself… we’re very cautious about the public message until we’re very clear.”
The healthiest emotions for the heart
“Often when we talk about a broken heart we talk about broken relationships, so I think while we intuitively associate those emotions with our heart, it makes sense that the converse would be true — that positive emotions, joy, love etcetera would have a positive effect on our heart and from a cardiac perspective there is evidence to show that is true from our overall risk profile,” Buckley says.
“There is some evidence around companionship decreasing risk, conversely there’s some evidence that loneliness increases risk. It’s mainly people who have good social structures, good social support who have a lower risk than those who don’t.”
From emotional start to healthy heart
Sometimes intense anger or grief — or even anxiety — is unavoidable. Instead of stressing about the potential physical impact, we ought to just take it easy until the emotion subsides so that we’re not putting excess strain on our hearts.
“When we’re busy or under the pump with work or going through a difficult period I think we tend to push ourselves physically through it,” Buckley says. “We’re not just pushing ourselves muscularly from a skeletal perspective, but we’re also pushing ourselves muscularly from the perspective of our heart and during high emotional states our hearts can be working very hard.”
For this reason, he advises against dismissing symptoms like heart palpitations, chest pains or dizzy spells.
“You’re more prone to having a heart attack in that time so determining whether this is a normal physiological response to that emotion or this is actually triggering an acute cardiac event is very important,” Buckley says. “This is why we say to people not to say ‘this is just the grief or just the anger or just the anxiety’. We have seen many patients who do that and a proportion will be act having a cardiac event and have perhaps missed the opportunity for early treatment.”
Heart attack facts
– Each year around 56,000 Australians suffer a heart attack.
– This equates to around 153 heart attacks a day, or one heart attack every 9 minutes.
– Each year, almost 9,300 Australians die of heart attack.
– One in four people who die from a heart attack die within the first hour of their first symptom.
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