Love, compassion, joy -- some of our most profound emotions are felt deep within our hearts. At the same time, some negative emotions can have a lasting physical effect on the heart, as well. Recent research shows a clear link between heart disease and certain stress-related emotions.
"What science is finding is what our grandmothers knew all along: You really can die of a broken heart," says Christine Maguth Nezu, Ph.D., coauthor of The Emotional Wellness Way to Cardiac Health: How Letting Go of Depression, Anxiety and Anger Can Heal Your Heart.
Dr. Nezu explains that unrelenting depression can not only worsen existing heart disease, it also can increase the risk for the disease in otherwise healthy people.
The same is true of persistent anxiety and "toxic anger." Research suggests when these emotions aren't managed well, over time they may raise blood pressure, block arteries, weaken the immune system, cause abnormal heart rhythms or even lead to sudden cardiac death.
We all get angry or sad now and then. Occasional bouts of negative emotion are, in themselves, not a big deal; in fact, they're part of being human, and they help us become aware of important issues that need to be addressed. When toxic emotions aren't managed well and keep arising regularly in our day-to-day lives, over time they can have a harmful effect on the heart.
"Because negative emotions and heart disease are linked, and heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, why not take the opportunity to manage your emotions more effectively?" Dr. Nezu asks. She explains that a healthy emotional state has positive effects on the heart and is just as crucial for your health and well-being as what you eat and how much physical activity you get.
Dr. Nezu, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology and associate professor of medicine at Drexel University in Philadelphia, points to a large and growing body of scientific evidence related to anger, anxiety and depression.
In the six months after a heart attack, being depressed increased the risk for sudden cardiac-related death by more than 400 percent in one study of 222 heart attack patients.
The higher a person's level of anxiety, the higher the risk he or she eventually will experience sudden cardiac death, according to a study of nearly 40,000 health professionals.
In a study of more than 2,000 men, those with high levels of hostility had more than twice the risk for death from cardiovascular disease than the men with low hostility scores.
You cannot get rid of your difficult emotions. But when they're having a negative impact on your day-to-day life, you can learn to manage them more effectively," says Dr. Nezu.
Notice which emotions may be ruling your life and take steps to turn the negative feelings to positive ones. For example, learning to forgive is extremely important for someone who has an anger problem. For sadness or depression, you can focus on cultivating positive emotions, such as joy and gratitude. If you're often anxious, certain relaxation strategies and changing the things you say to yourself under stress can be very helpful in turning off the worry switch.
Don't deny your emotions. "You may pride yourself on never getting rattled, but that doesn't mean your arousal system isn't triggered every time someone bugs you," Dr. Nezu says. "Sometimes we may be effective in denying our emotions to ourselves, but we can't fool our bodies. Being aware of your emotions is a step toward wisdom."
Find constructive ways to express emotions. Instead of seething or fretting, try writing down your feelings or talking about them with someone in a safe environment.
Realize it's OK to let go of anger. "It's a myth that letting go of anger makes a person weak or vulnerable to others," says Dr. Nezu. "In fact, the opposite is true: The more you let go, the less control people have over you because the less they're able to push your buttons."
Seek help. This is important, particularly if you've tried other options and they haven't worked. Therapy or counseling can help you identify the causes of your troublesome emotions and manage them.
Effective medications are available to ease symptoms of anxiety or depression while you learn to change toxic thought patterns or behaviors. And don't rule out an anger-management class.
"People tend to seek help for depression before they do for anger because to an angry person it's the people ticking them off who seem to need help, not them," she says.
If you can, solve stressful problems. There may be an external solution. For example, if morning rush-hour traffic always makes you angry, try getting up earlier to beat the rush.
Don't neglect other heart disease risks. Take steps to address high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity or excessive alcohol consumption.
"Be patient with yourself," Dr. Nezu says. "Realize that any major life change will take practice and persistence."