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A mind-body approach to heart health

Cheryl Jones By Cheryl Jones

Woman making heart shape with

Let’s talk about what it means to be heart healthy. Yes, you need regular exercise and a diet filled with fruit, vegetables and whole grains. But in my years working with clients as a wellness coach and mindfulness teacher, I’ve learned that taking steps to strengthen your heart emotionally is just as important to good health.

Everyday emotional stresses can cause physical problems like stomach aches and headaches, according to the American Psychological Association. And research shows that chronic, or long-term, stress contributes to serious problems including heart disease. But you can fight the harmful effects of stress by taking your feelings seriously, and asking your loved ones to support your journey to better emotional and physical health.

Be mindful.

Identify your feelings without judging yourself. Be honest about the good and the bad, and then try to “let it go.” That process frees you up to fully experience positive feelings like forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, love, joy, kindness and happiness. All of these things contribute to your heart health. Scientists aren’t sure what the connection is, but they’re looking into how positive emotions influence heart rate, sleeping patterns and healthy habits.

Talk to your loved ones.

As we become more aware of our feelings and health goals, we can choose how to handle them. Relationships can be a source of stress and a defense against it. The people close to us can also support our good habits or enable bad ones. Invite your friends and family to join your health team. It helps to use “I statements,” especially when trying to resolve conflicts.

Here are some ways to approach difficult conversations:

  • I feel frustrated when you keep the television on until midnight because it keeps me from getting enough sleep and I wake up too exhausted to go for my morning walk. 
  • I feel angry when you ask me to cook dinners that are high in fat because I’m trying to lose weight and I need your support.
  • I feel sad when you work late every night because we end up having so little family time. 

By setting up the conversation in this way, you own your feelings and there is no name-calling. You are not focusing on the other person’s character, but their behavior and how you feel about it.

Find positive coping habits.

Some of the health problems associated with stress follow from our coping habits, such as overeating or smoking. Try to find alternate ways to deal with negative feelings of frustration, anger and sadness. Consider taking a walk outside and breathing in the fresh air. Practice mindfulness meditation or go to a yoga class with a friend. Meet with someone you care about in person, not just via email or text.

Get help processing negative emotions.

It’s normal to have memories and feelings you don’t know how to deal with. A counselor or even a good friend can guide the conversation. Some health insurance companies, including Aetna, can connect you with a social worker who will listen and point you to resources like therapists and supports. Know that you are not alone in your suffering.

Once you start using these tools — naming your feelings, communicating how you feel, having an outlet to release negativity — you’ll be more likely to have your needs met, and also meet the needs of others. To me, that is the most authentic definition of a healthy heart.

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About the author

Cheryl Jones is the mindfulness director at Aetna. She has worked as a mindfulness teacher and wellness coach for more than 20 years. This year she plans to hike New Hampshire’s White Mountains, one of her favorite places on earth.

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