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Don't worry, be happy.
Yes, that's the name of the 1988 Grammy Award Song of the Year, a catchy little number by Bobby McFerrin.
It's also some good advice when it comes to helping keep your heart healthy.
Dr. Patrick McBride, a co-director of the UW Health Preventive Cardiology Program, says that reducing stress and treating depression not only can be beneficial for your emotional state, but for your heart, too.
"Things like stress, fatigue, depression or anxiety can have really major impacts on our heart," McBride said during an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio's Joy Cardin Show. "Anxiety or depression is a profound risk factor for stress, so taking care of depression and working with a professional on that is very important to reduce the risk of heart attack."
The Preventive Cardiology Program, which includes more than 20 providers, screens patients for stress, anxiety and depression in addition to asking them about their diet and exercise habits. The program works with a health psychologist to assist those who show signs of depression, social isolation or high levels of stress.
The Importance of Connection and Community
"Loneliness, isolation, being unhappy, not being around people, not being around friends and family - that's a stress on the heart that's been commonly described as being very difficult," McBride said. "So it's important to get out and get away. Sitting in front of a television and watching videos and things like that really adds to loneliness. It's really important for people to be part of a community and be active and not be isolated."
And not only just to be a part of a group, but to be a pleasant, positive member of that community.
"Being angry is very negative for the heart," McBride said. "It's been associated with earlier heart disease, higher blood pressure and bad heart rhythms. People that don't treat other people well, and being hostile, is also associated with those negative risk factors as well. So people need to take positive steps to deal with their anger and need to treat other people better in the workplace. That negative hostility has effects on all the people around them as well - so that can lead to stress for the other people in their environment."
Why does stress and depression have an impact on the heart? It's a two-fold problem.
"Stress has an effect on our body--when it's really negative--to release hormones in our body," McBride explained. "These are chemicals that have negative effects on our heart and blood vessels. They cause irritation --we call that inflammation. Negative effects on the lining of our blood vessels can lead to abnormal heart rhythm and can raise our blood pressure.
"And also people sometimes choose negative habits in response to very stressful situations. Such as when people choose to respond to stress by eating too much or drinking too much alcohol or smoking or choosing just to be inactive, vegging out on the couch, for example."
Tips to Counteract the Effects of Stress
How can you counteract the effects of stress?
"We respond positively to our body moving," McBride said. "Physical activity reduces a lot of the negative impacts of stress, reduces that irritation or inflammation, it's positive for our blood pressure, it's positive for our heart rhythm and it's positive for our heart and blood vessels." Whatever physical activity you enjoy is a good one, McBride says, be it a long run, a bike ride or walking the dog. "It doesn't matter what we recommend," he said, "it's what people like to do."
"That's a very important technique that's been developed very well in this (Madison) community over the past 20 years or so," McBride said. "Mindfulness is a form of meditation and relaxation that has been shown to improve and reduce stress." He adds that other forms of meditation and relaxation such as yoga and tai chi are all good to reduce stress and anxiety, and a spiritual life program can also be very helpful.
Be active in a community, spending time with friends and family and being social can help you maintain a positive outlook.
All Things in Moderation
Remember that "too much of a good thing is not good for us," whether that is work, your favorite foods, a compelling series on Netlfix or alcohol.
Advice for Making Lifestyle Changes
McBride acknowledges that making these changes can be tough, but he has some advice.
"One of the things that I've found really helpful is to engage someone else in a person's life to join in with them in making the changes," he said. "So having a partner or a friend or family member to help, I think really makes a difference. Journaling, I think, really makes a difference, writing down some goals.
“And really having a sense of not doing too much at once, but taking one step at a time and making changes - sometimes we set our goals too large. Meeting with a health professional, if some of the problems are too large, I think, is really important. It's really important to set overall goals and make sure that we try to do them just a little bit at a time to try to reach these goals, to make them really clear that they're going to be about real change in someone's life."
And, above all, try to be happy and not worry so much.
"It's worrying about things that can lead to a lot of trouble in our life," McBride said. "I think sometimes people really need a shift in attitude. I know a lot of people that take the negative side of everything, and that can lead to stress, or the release of these stress hormones, being anxious or depressed about normal things in life.”