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How to Protect Your Heart from Bad News

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As a cardiologist in New York City who specializes in women’s heart health, I’ve noticed a distinctive uptick in patients with a very particular problem. I first noticed this new challenge to my practice in early November 2017. Maybe you can guess the cause.

Before I go any further, I must say that this blog is not about politics. However, when politics affects women’s hearts, it becomes a relevant topic—not choosing sides, but from the point of view of finding a solution for a very real physical problem that puts lives at risk.

Back in 2008, I used to have many male patients who worked on the Stock Exchange. When that big stock market crash happened, I had a surge of patients coming in with palpitations, chest pain, difficulty sleeping and shortness of breath. These are all signs of stress, and stress is a big risk factor for heart disease. The collective stress of this one cohort of people was obvious, and I knew these men were now at greater risk than they had been before. The acute and relentless stress of that crash was manifesting in their hearts.

November 2016 presented a similar problem. This began a long and troubling surge in women’s symptoms of stress and heart disease. As the midterm elections are almost upon us, I can tell you without authority—without knowing exactly the political viewpoints of my patients—that what is going on in the world right now has deeply affected how many women (and men) feel, how they think, and especially how their emotions have affected their hearts. This is no small matter and, again, it’s not about politics. It’s about stress.

The undeniable fact is that my patients are more stressed now than I have ever seen them. Many have become depressed or riddled with anxiety. On a daily basis, I am inundated with patients who have insomnia, palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pain. Their hearts are, quite literally, hurting.

But unlike the stock market crash in 2008, the current situation has snowballed into something that is not just one event but the accumulation of many. During the Kavanaugh hearings, I had many women patients coming into the office confessing long-suppressed memories of sexual assault or sexual situations that made them uncomfortable enough that they didn’t often (or ever) talk about them or fully process them. Why say these things to your cardiologist? Because the dredging up of these memories had caused many sleepless nights, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pain—again, that literal feeling of pain in their hearts.

After this, there were 13 pipe bombs sent to some notable dissenters of the President…followed by the murder of two African Americans in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, after a failed attempt at a break-in to a nearby church…and then the murder of 11 Jewish people in a Pittsburgh synagogue on a Saturday morning. The stress-inducing news keeps rolling in and getting worse.

This one-two-three-four punch to the psyches of many of the women I take care of has changed the face of my days as a cardiologist. Women often feel and live from their hearts. While many men do too, women tend to default to a more emotional processing of their life experiences. When they hear about issues in the news that affect them emotionally, they often experience a spike in stress hormones, which can lead to those heart-based symptoms like palpitations and shortness of breath and sometimes chest pain. The effects of increased cortisol are also measurable—objectively, I am seeing increases in blood pressure, sometimes to dangerous levels, along with an increase in unhealthful behavioral choices, such as more smoking and drinking (has the wine consumption increased nationally? I would bet money it has…) and overeating, especially of sugary and junk foods.

This is our current reality, like it or not. As a cardiologist, I would like to tell everyone to turn off the news—though that’s not realistic, nor is it rational or even necessarily a good idea. But what I am seeing from a health perspective in women here in New York City is disturbing and, frankly, dangerous. The unpredictable nature of what we hear on the news every day coupled with the empathetic nature of so many of the women I take care of has resulted in a perfect storm of risk to our hearts.

So here is my advice, and this is what I tell my patients:

  1. Don’t watch the news right before bed. Give yourself at least an hour of the normal downtime required to shut off your brain and prepare it for a peaceful sleep.
  2. Take no more than one hour during the day to review the state of affairs. Then turn off the alerts, bypass the browsers, and go about your day focusing on your day.
  3. Remember that when you take in information, you are likely to internalize it. When the news is bad, this is not good for your health.
  4. Focus on what you can change. Do things that you can have an actual impact on, such as the mental and physical health of your family and the people in your community…or charity work…or even working for a political campaign. These actions are all more productive than worry and stress, which don’t help anyone—least of all you.
  5. Prioritize your own health. This is even more important during times of stress. Eat well to nourish and care for yourself. Get some exercise every day to improve your physical and mental resilience. Take some kind of stress management action, whether that means yoga or meditation, taking walks in nature, or spending more time with loving and supportive friends. And get enough sleep, please! Sleep deprivation makes everything feel worse.

Sometimes, my patients tell me that they just can’t focus on themselves because they feel so helpless or just can’t prioritize self-care in the face of so much tragedy. I have just one response: It’s almost time to vote. I think that is a very good reason to get and stay healthy—so you can step up and exercise your right to vote and do your part to help determine the future leaders of our country.

Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life.

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