Cultivate Happiness for Better Heart Health



Lake Forest resident and president of Highwood’s Viti Companies (GuyViti.com), Anna Maria Viti-Welch, credits an optimistic outlook with aiding her recovery from a mild heart attack a few years ago. “When you are under stress, it causes you to not care about anything else,” she says.

Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., a social work professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led a study recently published in the Health Behavior and Policy Review that discusses how much of a role optimism plays when it comes to heart health. Her findings are also consistent with what Stephen Devries, M.D., executive director of Deerfield-based nonprofit Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology (GaplesInstitute.org) sees on a regular basis among patients that have suffered from heart disease. Those with a better outlook, even in the face of a major illness, increased their chances at getting healthier faster, says Devries, who cites his work with heart patients over a span of 25 years.

“I have absolutely seen a connection between people who are upbeat and positively focused and better health,” says Devries. “In addition, more positive-minded people tend to have a much speedier recovery when heath problems develop.” Feeling anxious, depressed or sad contributes to making the body feel stressed, which sets up a whole cascade of problems, he explains. That can cause blood vessels to become constricted and the heart rate to increase, which leads to a greater risk of heart problems, including heart attacks. Being mindful of our outlook is important because we can proactively change it for the better to help our chances of getting and staying healthier, he believes.

Viti-Welch currently serves as a member of the advisory board of the Gaples Institute and she and Devries agree that when faced with an illness or negative news, it is normal to not feel very optimistic, and yet it is important to maintain that attitude for both short-term and long-term benefits. “Happiness, gratitude and positive emotions all lead to better health, and the good news is that they can be cultivated,” notes Devries. He finds it interesting that we are only now beginning to appreciate the mind-body connection or, as he puts it, the mind-heart connection, because it is not commonly acknowledged in conventional medical practice. “We don’t really focus much on controlling heart health through channels related to the mind and our emotions, yet we should be,” he notes.

Optimism doesn’t just play a role when we get hit with bad news, either; It also serves as a preventive measure. Happy people tend to be better adjusted overall, which means they don’t let bad news affect them as much as it would if they were generally unhappy, he observes. “The key factor is that the brain is kind of a clearinghouse for the hormones and electrical activations throughout the body that can really set off a whole series of either health-promoting or health-damaging consequences,” explains Devries.

For those that aren’t very optimistic on a regular basis, Devries recommends looking into meditation, spiritual pursuits and developing meaningful social connections, whether that means getting out more often with friends or volunteering. Viti-Welch also finds that volunteering and helping those less fortunate helps us appreciate how lucky we are, especially if we’re helping younger children.

She once chaired a Chicago area American Heart Association Go Red for Women event to help educate women about how to fight heart disease, the number one killer of women. “I think people need to find something they like, whether it is a new hobby, reading a good book or seeing a good movie, to help them think positively,” she says. “There are so many charities that need help, and this feeling makes a person feel wanted. If you can connect with a friend and start exercising and hold each other accountable, that will start making you feel good, too.”

 

Megy Karydes is constantly searching for sunshine, even during the dreary Feb. days. You can also find her at MegyKarydes.com.

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