Heart disease

A lack of exercise, poor diet and smoking can all lead to heart disease. So can stressful thoughts and emotions.

One in three American adults has cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Many of them may not be aware of the important role their minds can play when it comes to preventing disease or keeping existing disease from getting worse.

Research has shown that anger and irritability put people at risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Depression is another major risk factor. In fact, studies have found that individuals diagnosed with clinical depression are more than twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease or suffer a heart attack. And heart patients are three times more likely to be depressed than the population as a whole.

Fortunately, psychological intervention may help. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, researchers found that teaching heart patients stress management improved their blood vessel functioning and other markers of arterial health. Plus, the participants felt less distressed and depressed.

How you can protect your heart

Try these strategies:

  • Change your behavior. Eating better, exercising regularly and tossing your cigarettes can help you stay heart-healthy. But changing habits can be hard. Try changing just one behavior at a time. A psychologist can help you design strategies for setting and achieving reasonable goals.
  • Calm down. Look for ways to identify and eliminate sources of stress in your life. To manage stress, try meditation, exercise or talking things over with family or friends. A psychologist can help you develop effective stress-management strategies.
  • Don't ignore depression. Persistent feelings of sadness, fatigue and loss of interest in things can be warning signs of depression. A psychologist working in tandem with your physician can develop a treatment plan.
  • Watch for complications. Having a heart attack, stroke or invasive procedure can prompt feelings of shock, fear and depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, for example, up to 65 percent of heart attack patients experience some form of depression. Prolonged depression can not only complicate your recovery; research shows that it can also contribute to subsequent heart attacks and strokes. In addition to treating such problems, a psychologist can help you learn how to follow your doctor's orders and communicate better with your health-care team.