How Does Depression Affect the Heart?

sad woman in windowsill

How to stay heart healthy — even when you’re down.

When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to reach for your favorite comfort food or skip a workout. But thinking about your heart health is important, even when you’re not feeling too chipper.

When people are stressed, anxious or depressed, they may feel overwhelmed, so they’re not apt to make healthy lifestyle choices. They may be more likely to smoke more, not be physically active,

sleep too little or too much, drink too much alcohol and fail to take their prescribed medications. Over time, these unhealthy behaviors can increase the risk for heart disease.

Trauma, depression, anxiety and stress can lead to changes that can affect your health, and not just because you may fall into habits that are bad for your heart. Research shows that mental health also has physiologic effects on the body.

Depression is reported in over 7% of Americans ages 18 and older, and the figure can be as high as 20% for post-heart attack patients.

Can depression cause heart disease or heart attack?

When you experience depression, anxiety or stress your heart rate and blood pressure rise, there’s reduced blood flow to the heart and your body produces higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Over time, these effects can lead to heart disease. Depression and anxiety can also develop after cardiac events, including heart failure, stroke and heart attack.

What can I do to help my stress, anxiety or depression?

If you’re struggling with depression, stress or anxiety, taking three key steps can help.

1.  Identify the cause of your depression, stress or anxiety and address it.

Seek therapy if necessary.

At times you may feel down for a couple of days, but if it goes on for two weeks or more, you may need to seek help. Depression is a problem when it causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home.

2.  Choose healthy habits and don't rush it.

If you aren't in the habit of exercising, start gradually.

Something as simple as taking a walk, 30 minutes a day, even if you do only 10 minutes at a time, can help your heart. Physical activity improves your mood while you’re doing it, but  regular physical activity can also improve your mental well-being, lower the risk of depression and improve your overall quality of life.

If reaching for unhealthy foods has become a habit, try using healthier cooking techniques or substituting ingredients to cut down on fat, added sugar, sodium and calories. Grab healthy snacks, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, or choose undressed salads and other low-fat dishes when eating out. 

3.  Incorporate other healthy lifestyle changes one at a time.

Don’t try to “fix” everything at once. That’s especially true if one of the habits you want to break is smoking.

Quitting smoking can be difficult. If you smoke, talk with your health care professional to determine if you need medications or other help to quit. Therapies may include nicotine replacement or prescription medicines. You could also ask for a referral for a smoking cessation program.

Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself to break the cycle of feeling down. That could be doing something structured, such as a yoga class or tai chi practice, or something you can do anywhere, such as meditating, listening to music or reading a book.