Cardiac Psychology: Understanding the Relationship Between Heart & Mind For Health and Well-being

Heart & MindWhen doctors discover cardiac issues like heart disease or an increased risk of heart attack, patients often face mental health challenges in addition to the physical hurdles they have to overcome. 

In recent years, however, research has confirmed just how important the link between the heart and mind is to overall health. The OC Health Psychologists team, led by Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Kristin Kleppe, has followed these findings and developed a cardiac psychology program for patients who need specialized counseling.

Cardiac psychology addresses the mental health needs of cardiac patients who could benefit from a more holistic approach to quality of life improvements. Understanding the relationship between the heart and the mind has proven essential for guiding patients to better outcomes.

The Relationship Between Psychology & Cardiac Disease

Humanity has always assumed a romantic or spiritual connection between the heart and the mind. The literal connection was mostly unexplored by modern academia until the late 1990s, however, when Robert Allan and Jeffrey Fisher first published “Heart and Mind: The Practice of Cardiac Psychology.” 

Researchers who studied this link in earnest found a strong correlation between depression and cardiac disease. The American Heart Association began recommending depression screenings for cardiovascular patients in 2008, and there is a growing awareness in the medical community that treatment for depression can prevent or reduce the progression of heart disease.

Another interesting discovery that has been verified recently is that the relationship between the heart and the mind works both ways. Mental health challenges can have negative effects on the heart, but cardiac trauma can also have negative effects on the mind. Specifically, some cardiac events or cardiac surgery can lead to depression and a misfire on an implantable device such as a defibrillator can lead to a trauma response.  

Almost half of the patients who have heart procedures struggle with depression or anxiety afterward, and approximately 15% of heart attack and cardiac surgery patients are likely to develop PTSD in the year after the cardiac event1. These challenges can increase the likelihood of another cardiac event, and many individuals need a psychologist’s help to process the feelings of fear and loss of control that their experience produced.

Myths & Misconceptions Around Cardiac Psychology

The remarkable relationship between mental and cardiac health is also responsible for a condition known as “broken heart syndrome,” which many believe is a myth but has been proven real by multiple studies.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy, occurs when acute emotional or physical stress weakens or damages the heart muscle. The effects often go unnoticed when they occur, but these events can have a real impact on one’s risk for heart disease/attack. 

Open heart procedures in which the heart is physically manipulated can cause this type of damage, but losing a loved one is also a notable contributing factor. Research shows that the loss of an adult child increases the risk of a cardiac event within three years. 

Another common misconception is that “Type A” personalities are more prone to heart disease than other personality types because of their loud, brash, or hard-charging temperaments. 

In fact, the opposite is true – “Type D” personalities are more likely to suffer from a cardiac event related to mental health challenges than others. This personality type typically internalizes negative feelings and struggles with anger management, depression, and anxiety, all of which can contribute to poor cardiac health.

Guidance for Cardiac Patients Facing Mental Health Challenges

Most people who are dealing with heart health issues already know what they need to do physically to prevent or reduce heart disease. An improved diet, regular exercise, proper sleep hygiene, and other lifestyle changes can go a long way and shouldn’t be ignored. 

Addressing the psychological factors that impact cardiac disease, however, is essential for long-term health as well. 

One of the most common mental health challenges facing individuals with cardiac concerns is reducing stress. Less stress in one’s life means less strain on the body generally and the heart specifically. 

Therapy and counseling can help individuals identify the causes of their stress and train the mind to be resilient and cope with pressure. A therapist can also help prevent or reduce heart disease by supporting and encouraging individuals to pursue their health goals and sustain motivation.

Further, while negative emotions can contribute to heart disease, cultivating positive emotions can help protect the heart and reduce the likelihood of a cardiac event.

The Science of Positive Psychology

In recent years, psychologists and researchers have recognized and studied the effects of “positive psychology” on the heart and body as a whole. By helping patients rediscover and reinforce specific emotions, therapists can help individuals reduce or prevent heart problems before they become serious.

The most common positive emotions that psychologists help patients develop include:

  • Gratitude and thankfulness for life and existing relationships
  • Resilience for getting through difficult circumstances
  • Optimism and hope for the future
  • Humor to maintain perspective through adversity
  • Forgiveness of yourself and others to instigate change

Bolstering mental strength with positive psychology is a powerful strategy to improve self-esteem, relationships, and quality of life, in addition to the cardiac benefits that such a pursuit provides. 

If you want to learn more about the links between heart and mind health and receive care for your body, mind, and spirit, please click here to contact Orange County Health Psychologists today.

1Doerfler, L.A., & Paraskos, J.A. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder following myocardial infarction or cardiac surgery. In R. Allan & J. Fisher (Eds.), Heart and Mind (2nd ed., pp. 249-268). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.