When it comes to heart health, mindfulness matters
Heart disease has been the number one killer in the United States for decades. According to Dr. Adam Stern, MD, FACC, Preventive Cardiologist, Baystate Medical Center, “Six-hundred and sixty thousand Americans die from heart disease every year. Patients lucky enough to survive a cardiac event need to take stock of the lifestyle and health factors that contributed to their condition and place them at risk for another event.”
The biggest risk factors for developing heart disease (and increased risk of recurrence of a cardiac event) are: high blood pressure, smoking, a diet high in saturated fats and sugar, unhealthy weight, high cholesterol, and a sedentary lifestyle.
But there’s another factor—one we’re all familiar with—that also has a significant impact on heart health: Stress.
The heart disease-stress link
While we experience stress in our minds, it can take a serious toll on our heart in several ways.
First, stress can increase inflammation in your body, which can lead to a variety of health concerns. Second, when you experience stress, your body releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline which increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure. In addition, people experiencing stress tend to sleep poorly. When you sleep poorly, you’re less likely to exercise or eat well. And the risk factors compound.
Tackling stress one thought at a time
Rabbi Ken Hahn, Interfaith Chaplain, Baystate Spiritual Services is very familiar with the impact stress can have on patients after a cardiac event.
As a spiritual caregiver, he regularly visits with patients who are facing a new reality after a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiac event or procedure.
“The thing about a cardiac health crisis of any kind is it’s scary,” says Hahn. “There’s a lot of anxiety and fear around whether it might happen again and how your life may change. That kind of uncertainty can be incredibly stressful.
“Plus, the experience of being in a hospital can be very isolating—especially now during COVID. Often the vital connections we have to family, friends, faith, and community are disrupted. In the absence of those connections, stress levels go up and people often fall into depression. Stress can quickly become a downward spiral that feeds upon itself. It’s my role to help patients find ways to address their stress and, in turn, improve their mental and heart health.”
Tapping the power of mindfulness
Hahn defines mindfulness as “the capacity to pay full attention to what is going on in ourselves and the world around us without any judgment or evaluation.”
The goal, he explains, is to be present in the moment and not indulge in feeling anxious about fears for the future or sad about regrets from the past.
“Mindfulness,” he says, “let’s us savor the good stuff that’s taking place right now. When you do that, you suddenly see the small miracles in life. With each miracle, your heart becomes lighter and your stress lifts.”
Hahn is quick to acknowledge that while it sounds simple, mindfulness can be difficult to achieve. Here’s why:
“Thoughts are what drive our emotions. The average person has easily 6,000 thoughts a day. For some, the number’s more like 60,000. And of those thousands of thoughts, 80% or more are negative.”
The key to managing all those thoughts and not succumbing to all that negativity is to be responsive and not reactive to your thoughts.
“That is,” explains Hahn, “you have to learn to break the habit of immediately reacting to a thought or experience and allow yourself, for just a moment, to stop and observe what’s happening or what you’re thinking without judgement. You’ve got to hit pause on your hardwired reactivity…instead of thinking ‘I’m so angry,’ you need to notice ‘that made me angry.’ You want to be an observer of your own thoughts so that you can control whatever action you take next instead of your emotions driving your behavior. Doing this one little thing can help bring you into the moment and stop your mind from racing and keep anger from becoming rage or fear from becoming paranoia. Your anxiety and stress are reduced and heart beats a little easier.”
Mindfulness in the palm of your hand
There are many options out there for learning and practicing mindfulness, with many apps offering limited free versions or full versions at a cost.
Here are some resources recommended by Rabbi Hahn:
If you have questions about your heart health, contact the Baystate Health Heart & Vascular program or talk with your primary care provider.