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Mental Health Maintenance: Help Yourself Now to Help Your Heart Later

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By: Karen Yontz Center Staff

In light of recent world events, you might be feeling more and more like your mental health isn’t the best it could be. You aren’t alone. In late March 2020, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of people said that worry and stress about coronavirus had a negative impact on their mental health, and women were 16% more likely to say that coronavirus-related worry or stress had had a negative impact on their mental health compared to men. Stress, anxiety, depression, grief, and loneliness are all mental health issues that people are struggling with during this unique time. And each can impact your heart health in specific ways.

  • Anxiety: Before COVID-19 hit our communities, anxiety disorders already ranked as one of the most common mental health problems. It can cause rapid heart rate or other arrythmias and increase your blood pressure. Symptoms of anxiety include sleep issues, trouble with focus, restlessness, tension, and relentless worrying.
  • Stress: While the exact impacts of stress on heart health are still being studied, what is known is that it has a large impact on heart disease risk factors. Chronic conditions like high blood pressure can be aggravated by stress and our habits also are impacted. Things like what we eat, drink, and if we smoke can be affected by stress.
  • Depression: Studies show that not only do people with depression wrestle with more high-risk factors for heart disease like smoking, poor diet, or lack of exercise, but depression itself can impact the heart physically. It can disrupt your heart rhythm, increase inflammation and blood clots, and increase stress hormones which can raise your blood pressure and harden your arteries.
  • Grief: Grief is a natural response to loss and right now, many of us are experiencing a lot of loss. We tend to associate grief with the loss of a loved one, but you can also grieve a loss of your normal routine, your cancelled vacation plans, or hanging out with your friends. The ongoing grief we may be feeling right now can lead to increased inflammation and release of stress hormones that impact the heart.
  • Loneliness: For every one of us who is sheltering at home with a spouse or roommate or other family member, there is someone else who is doing it solo. In studies, lonely people have been shown to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and that persistent “stressed” state causes wear and tear to your arteries.

We know what we should be looking out for and why. But what can we do about it? People are finding ways both old and new to keep their mental health and well-being in check. Choose the ones that work best for you:

  • Keep busy around the house: do crafts you enjoy, read, watch movies, work on home improvement projects
  • Get active: walk, bike, do yoga, take an online exercise class
  • Limit your information intake: Set a limit for news and social media
  • Maintain routine: Create a daily plan so that you have things to look forward to each day
  • Keep your cool: Try mindfulness, meditation, prayer, gratitude journaling or even spending quality time with your pets
  • Stay connected—virtually: Now is the time to call the people you miss, video chat, or even send a letter
  • Look for small moments of joy each day: hearing the birds sing, discovering a new show on Netflix, or cooking a new recipe.

The ways you learn to manage your mental health now will serve you well even when this crisis has passed.

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