STRIKING AT THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Occasionally, people wonder why a psychologist sometimes writes about things having to do with the body; as opposed to those of the mind. "What does a psychologist know about good health?" It is reasoned. More than likely, none of these people have ever observed an "on-call" physician eating dinner.
Nevertheless, there are those who frequently send health- related questions. Research studies in a variety of contexts have confirmed the existence of a strong relationship between activity among the organs and systems in the body and various psychological stressors in one's life. Among the concerns frequently expressed is the issue of Heart Disease: Its Causes and Prevention. Heart disease is America's number one killer. More individuals die from heart disease than from all other causes combined!
At any given time, over forty million people are experiencing some facet of it. As the yearly cost of treating heart disease in this country exceeds $80 billion, attempts to recognize early warning signs and prevent it have become essential. The probability of a heart attack's occurrence is related to several components of a person's lifestyle:

  1. Diet. In our society, the proliferation of fast-foods, combined with demanding schedules and reinforcement histories of poor eating habits can be lethal. We are often prone toward diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Unfortunately although many of the foods which contain these elements are pleasing, they are also the building blocks of atherosclerosis. Eating foods of high fat content can cause the body to release a hormone (thromboxane) that can cause constriction of the arteries and clotting. Over time, this may produce increased chest pains-- even a heart attack.
  2. Drugs. Stimulants such as caffeine, and to a greater extent, amphetamines and cocaine, can cause blood clots, plaque, hemorrhage and constriction of the arteries. Nicotine can harm the lining of your arteries, cause those arteries to constrict and blood to clot faster. Thus, greatly increasing the risk of a heart attack.
  3. Emotional Stress. We all experience stress at times during the course of our daily lives. But the occurrence of chronic stress-- that is, a constant, on-going by-product of life's events such as the anticipation of failure, or a host of negative internal expressions like loneliness and depression-- may be tantamount to flirting with death. A regular diet of stress stimulates the "fight" or "flight" hormone, adrenaline. This can cause intense anxiety, insomnia, increased heart rate and blood clotting; and arterial spasms. It can also stimulate the production of a steroid called, "cortisol", which can cause a variety of problems and impairments.

Although this picture is bleak and unpleasant, it is not hopeless. Negative beliefs such as, "Changing is hopeless", are acquired through a process in which useless outcomes are recycled: At first, you may fail to produce a desired change. So you try the same method that has not worked again...only "harder." With repeated failures, you begin to believe that changing would require major reversals in some well-ingrained but ineffective behaviors. Recognizing the degree of difficulty such a task entails, and the possibility of failing, you feel threatened. This only increases the stress involved which, in turn, is reduced through denial.

  1. This pattern often accounts for many self-defeating behaviors in one's life such as overeating, smoking, worrying (constant internal dialogue), and other activities incompatible with a healthy heart. In contrast, considering useful change an adventure rather than a threat, expands the range of possibilities and increases the likelihood of success. Does your lifestyle include running a high risk of heat attack? Care to begin an adventure in which you live long enough to fight back? 1- Break the stress balloon before it breaks you. Practice stress-reduction exercises just one hour per day, including: stretching, progressive relaxation, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing and constructive visualization. There are many self-help books as well as professional counselors that can guide you in this process.
  2. Diet sensibly. Drastically reduce your intake of foods high in saturated fats, oils and (if possible) red meats. Experiment by increasing fruits, vegetables and grains.
  3. Say, "No" to drugs. Begin drinking decaffeinated coffee and quit smoking! Well, at least, quit smoking. At the heart of the matter...is your health.