Research Shows That a Positive Outlook Can Naturally Protect Your Heart
Depression, stress and anxiety have long been known as risk factors for the development of heart disease. Stress causes surges in hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can negatively impact heart rate and blood pressure. Depressed people are also more likely to seek comfort through unhealthy foods, nicotine, alcohol or drugs, and to lack the motivation to be physically active.
Therefore, it is clear that certain psychological factors which go untreated can place you at greater risk for developing heart disease. But, what if there were psychological characteristics that could actually protect you from developing heart disease? A series of recent studies illustrates that people can improve their heart health by developing specific psychological characteristics that may surprise you: optimism, gratitude and purpose in life.
It seems that those who see their glass as half full don’t just have more fun – they also have healthier hearts. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois, optimists are twice as likely as pessimists to have excellent heart health. The study utilized a large sample of the American population, representing age, ethnic, racial and geographic diversity. Cardiovascular health was assessed in the study’s participants, using a variety of metrics including blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. The research team also found that optimists in the group were more likely to be physically active and less likely to smoke than their pessimistic counterparts, thereby creating avenues for lasting cardiovascular fitness.
If optimists see their glass as half full, people who feel gratitude fill the remaining half all the way to the top. Having gratitude means noticing the good things in your life and being thankful and appreciative for them. With a focus on how to prevent cardiac symptoms from developing, a West Coast research team tested the impact of gratitude on cardiovascular fitness by assessing individuals who had been diagnosed with structural heart disease but were still asymptomatic.
The results were quite remarkable: gratitude was not only associated with better sleep and improved mood, but it was also linked to lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers of heart health. Statistical analyses also demonstrated that gratitude is a protective factor regardless of a person’s religious or spiritual orientation. The research team was led by Professor Paul Mills of UC San Diego and included, among others, Deepak Chopra. It may just be that psychosocial interventions, such as the development of gratitude, may be used in the future to help prevent some cardiac symptoms from ever developing in the first place. This is particularly important, because, once these symptoms materialize, the risk of death rises exponentially.
Purpose in life is an emerging topic of interest in the field of positive psychology and is being studied for its observed impact on positive mental health and physiological well-being. In a third study, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York sought to investigate whether having a strong sense of purpose in life could also protect the heart. They found that feeling purposeful was, in fact, strongly associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. While prior studies have shown a strong connection between purpose and overall well-being, this study, led by cardiologist Randy Cohen, M.D., found that those who had a strong sense of purpose experienced a 19 percent decrease in risk of cardiac events and need for cardiac procedures, as well as a 23 percent reduction in all-cause deaths.
The outcomes of these studies suggest that psychological and behavioral interventions, not just medical and pharmacological interventions, will be key in helping Americans develop healthy hearts for longer, happier lives. Best of all, these psychological tools have no known side effects and can be developed by anyone.
Americans can improve their cardiovascular fitness by tapping into the natural potential of the mind to protect the heart. Happy – and healthy – people find the good in others and the world around them. They believe in the beauty of what the future holds. They take time each day to be thankful for the gifts and blessings that surround them. They know their lives have purpose, stay connected with that purpose, and let it guide them in their decisions. Their hearts grow stronger, and their lives grow fuller every day!
Dan Goldman, Ph.D., is a licensed counseling psychologist in Sarasota and Charlotte Counties. He is a positive psychologist, emphasizing the promotion of mental health over the treatment of mental illness. He focuses treatment on both person and problems, and does not utilize medication in treatment. His clinical areas of focus include life transitions, personal growth, weight management and mindfulness. To schedule an appointment, call 941-255-5489 or, for more information, visit LifeManagementSite.com.