By Dr. Elaine Ducharme

With all the focus on romance and love around Valentine’s Day, the most important aspect of the heart is often overlooked—its health.  February is National Heart Month and a time when Americans should remember that there are simple steps they can take to reduce their risk of heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every four deaths is caused by heart disease. Half of the men and almost two-thirds of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk.

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that 51 percent of adults reported that personal health concerns were a significant source of stress. Furthermore, 23 percent of adults reported that they are in “fair” or “poor” health.

Heart disease is thought to be most commonly linked to physical activities such as lack of exercise, smoking and unhealthy dietary behaviors but stress and your mental health play a significant role.

Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, as is the case with heart health and stress. People dealing with major health issues such as heart disease tend to ignore their mental health or emotions. It’s important to recognize and address any negative emotions or feelings of stress that may contribute to your overall well-being. Learning how to properly manage these feelings has enormous physical and psychological benefits.”

The American Psychological Association recommends that you identify unhealthy behaviors that increase your risk of heart disease.  No two people are alike and certain treatments or risk-reduction strategies that work for one person may be inappropriate or even harmful to another person. Be sure to consult with your primary care practitioner about a plan for your overall health and well-being. If stress is contributing to your risk and increasing your unhealthy behaviors, a psychologist can help you recognize and understand your stress triggers, and develop action plans for dealing with them.

Focus on changing one thing at a time. Instead of trying to change everything at once, pick one existing habit, like sitting for hours watching TV, and replace it with a healthier alternative such as taking a walk around the block.  Set a reasonable goal and work toward meeting it.

Take care of yourself. After a heart attack, you may experience feelings of extreme sadness or stress, so be sure you recognize and address any negative emotions. Make time for yourself at least two or three times a week.  Even ten minutes a day of “personal time” can help refresh your mental health outlook and slow down your body’s stress response system.

Have fun. Research shows that enjoying leisure activities can help your psychological and physical well-being. Get involved in activities that you enjoy, take a relaxing vacation or spend time with friends and family.

Ask for support.  Accepting help and support from those who care about you can help alleviate stress and reduce your risk of heart disease. Build a support network from your friends and family.  If you continue to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of managing the behaviors associated with heart disease you may want to talk with a psychologist.

Maintaining a healthy heart is an ongoing process and it is important not to become overwhelmed.  Take small steps to manage your stress in healthy ways and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, friends or a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist, when you need it.”

To learn more about heart disease and mind/body health, visit the American Psychological Association at and follow @APAHelpCenter on Twitter.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes more than 117,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.


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