Historically, western medical doctors who are unable to find a measurable cause for an ailment have diagnosed their patients with a psychosomatic disorder. Consequently, many depressed or anxious patients with physical symptoms are told that their illness resides entirely in their head. As our understanding of the link between emotions and heart disease solidifies, fewer physicians are neglecting the psyche’s involvement in assessing their patient’s physical health.
An advantage of many holistic medical disciplines is that emotional and physical problems are perceived as interchangeable manifestations – with either or both indicating a single, real imbalance. Recent studies on heart disease risk have shifted the western medical doctor’s dismissal of psychosomatic issues. This evidence finally merges the different philosophies of holistic and allopathic medicines. Because allopathic-based clinical research now demonstrates that depression and anxious phobias are proportionately related to the risk of cardiac events, western physicians can no longer ignore the connection between the emotional and the physical.
It is common knowledge that stress is bad for the heart. Thus, healthcare providers have been advising their clients with cardiovascular disease to relieve their stress for decades. However, research from the past few years demonstrates that the risk of emotional discontentment is far greater than previously realized.
- Severe Depression – As published in the March 17, 2009 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that relatively healthy women with severe depression are at increased risk of cardiac events, including sudden cardiac death (SCD) and fatal coronary heart disease (CHD). They found that women with clinical depression were more than twice as likely to experience sudden cardiac death.According to lead investigator William Whang, MD, MS, Division of Cardiology, Colombia University Medical Center, “A significant part of the heightened risk for cardiac events seems to be explained by the fact that coronary heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and smoking were more common among women with more severe depressive symptoms.”
- Psychological Distress – As published in the December 16-23, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, many people in psychological distress also slip into poor health habits, predominantly smoking and physical inactivity. According to the study, smoking and lack of exercise alone may account for nearly two thirds of the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular disease in people who suffer from anxiety and depression.
- Phobic Anxiety – As published in the February 2005 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, women with phobic anxieties, such as the fear of crowded places, heights or going outside are at higher risk for fatal heart disease than women with fewer or no anxieties. The authors recognized that women who had high levels of phobic anxiety also were more likely to smoke, have hypertension and high cholesterol. While it is not known whether phobic anxiety makes women more likely to develop other risk factors for heart disease or whether these risk factors lead to higher levels of phobic anxiety, the connection between anxiety and cardiovascular disease is unmistakable.
Scientists are still debating if depression and anxiety directly or indirectly increase the risk of cardiac events. Raising the risk of heart disease indirectly likely stems from:
- emotional distress leading to unhealthy, heart-damaging behaviors (like smoking, poor eating habits or inactivity)
- emotional distress causing other ailments (such as diabetes or insomnia) that could negatively influence heart health
Most of us know how important good nutrition, exercising and avoiding smoking are to maintaining good health. However, the evidence indicates that these habits are even more important for those under psychological distress. In light of the research described above, consumers and healthcare providers across all disciplines must prioritize depression and anxiety. In an effort to prevent a potentially fatal cardiac event, depression and anxiety should serve as warnings to evaluate, monitor and protect cardiovascular health.