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You’ve Gotta Have Heart

Broken hearts, sweethearts, hearts overflowing with joy — we give this vital organ a lot of credit beyond pumping our blood. And as it turns out, the connection between emotions and the heart has moved beyond poetry and into medical journals. Research shows that your emotions can have a profound effect on your health.

According to Clifford Kavinsky, MD, PhD, an interventional cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center, that’s particularly true when it comes to your heart.

“There’s a clear association between emotional or physical stress and heart health,” he says. Anxiety, grief, anger and love, in particular, have received a lot of attention from researchers.


Whether your worries are well-founded or irrational, anxiety is real, and it can cause problems such as sleep disturbances, headaches, trembling and shortness of breath.

Ongoing anxiety can deliver a real knockout. Research suggests it may speed up the process of atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the coronary arteries from cholesterol plaques. Increased blood pressure can disturb these plaques, and if one breaks off, a clot can form and cause a heart attack, Kavinsky says. Other research shows that people who remain anxious after a heart attack are substantially more likely to have another.


The shock of a tragic event, such as the unexpected death of a loved one, can have serious effects on your heart.

Stress hormones, such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, cause the heart to pump harder and faster. If the arteries are already narrowed by atherosclerosis, they may not be able to carry enough blood to meet this extra demand — a condition called myocardial ischemia. In some cases, this can cause a heart attack.

Such sudden grief can also lead to stress cardiomyopathy — also known as broken heart syndrome. The surge of stress hormones can stun even a healthy heart and cause symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, that mimic a heart attack. But with broken heart syndrome, no permanent damage occurs.

“There are no blockages in the coronary arteries, and with time the heart heals itself, ” Kavinsky says.

Since the symptoms are similar, doctors often don’t realize the patient didn’t have a heart attack until tests show otherwise.


Hostility, depression, anger — some people have these negative emotions frequently, and that’s bad for your heart. Researchers at Rush have found that such emotions can predict the development of heart disease.

“They are associated with the early changes that happen before cardiovascular disease develops, ” says Lynda Powell, PhD, a cardiovascular epidemiologist at Rush. That’s true whether or not you have other risks, such as smoking or diabetes.

Other studies show that chronic anger can triple the risk for heart attack, and episodes of extreme anger can lead to life-threatening arrhythmias.


It’s no wonder the heart is the symbol of love. There’s the romantic quickening of the pulse, of course, but there’s also a more practical connection: Research shows that loving relationships reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

At the center of this response is the hormone oxytocin. Responsible for the good feeling you get when you are close to your loved ones, including pets, oxytocin helps your heart by lowering stress hormone levels, thus reducing blood pressure.

Lack of love has the opposite effect. Studies show that people who have lost a mate by death or divorce have significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease.

Take It To Heart

The lesson about emotions and heart disease may be to look on the bright side. And there is one, according to Powell.

“People can protect themselves against the effects of these psychosocial factors,” she says. “The magic bullet is physical activity.” This not only moderates the effects of stress, it also helps lower other risks for heart disease.

Visit for advice about starting an exercise program or call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) to receive a referral for a physician.


Heart and Cardiovascular Care at
Rush University Medical Center

At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons, researchers and nurse specialists work in teams to address the full scope of heart problems, whether common or complex.

Working in state-of-the art facilities, using some of the world’s most sophisticated technology, these experts are on the leading edge of diagnosis, treatment and discovery. From preventive measures to heart transplantation, they are helping to revolutionize heart care.

For more information about cardiovascular services at Rush visit our Heart & Vascular Programs home page.

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