According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a growing body of research shows that mental health conditions and heart disease are inexorably linked. These links can build in a variety of ways.

People with mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, can experience such physical effects as heightened stress hormones, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and lowered blood flow to the heart. If allowed to continue over months and years, this can eventually lead to metabolic syndrome, arterial plaque, and heart disease.

Many people with mental health disorders also turn to unhealthy lifestyle choices to cope. Smoking, missing medication doses, and a lack of physical activity are just a few lifestyle choices that can increase the risk of heart disease. Complicating the problem is that some mental health medications carry risks to the heart.

Heart disease can also raise the risk for mental health disorders. An acute heart event such as a heart attack, or even a diagnosis of heart disease, can cause stress. This stress can turn into depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions if not properly managed.

Groups at Heightened Risk

Although combined mental health and heart health can happen to anyone, some groups are at heightened risk of mental health-related heart problems. These include:

Women: Although the reasons are not yet clear, women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are at increased risk for complications related to coronary artery disease.

Veterans: Due to the extraordinarily high rates of PTSD in military veterans, this group is at higher risk for heart problems.

Racial and ethnic minorities: Social determinants of health, such as socioeconomic and educational disparities, place minorities at higher risk of mental health disorders and heart problems.

PTSD couples: If one or both partners in a relationship have PTSD, the relationship tends to be hallmarked by conflict, including increased cardiovascular reactivity to discussions. This raises both partners’ heart health risks.

Which mental health disorders are linked to heart disease?

The most commonly studied mental health conditions that show a link to increased heart disease risks include:

  • Chronic stress
  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders such as depression

Experts believe that additional conditions, including substance abuse disorders, may also impact heart health. But the research is still unclear.

How to protect yourself

One of the most important steps you can take is having professional checkups for both your mental health and heart health. The sooner you catch any emerging condition, the easier it is to treat. Follow your doctor’s or therapist’s recommendations closely to reduce your future risks.

After two years of coping with a global pandemic, we could all stand to take better care of ourselves. Even if you have a clean bill of health, better self-care can help protect you. To care for both your heart and your mental health, try such techniques as:

Healthier eating: Make sure there are a variety of colors and types of foods on your plate and limit your consumption of sweets and unhealthy fats.

More exercise: Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, at least five days per week.

Better relaxation: Whether you embark on a meditation program, start taking regular nature hikes, or play video games at night, tap into the things that help you personally relax. Put them on your calendar, and never allow yourself to feel guilty. You can’t take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself first.