Happiness, Anger, Stress, and the Heart 

Robin Berzin, MD
March 9, 2015

At Parsley Health we focus not just on the state of your body but on the state of your brain because the two are deeply linked.

I was reminded of this last weekend during a few hours of listening to lectures on cardiac health by the Institute for Functional Medicine.

As enlightening as it was to learn about new biomarkers for cardiovascular disease, what struck me deeply were these stats on anger depression and heart health:

1. Anger increases your risk of having a heart attack 230% (Circulation, 1995).

2. Anger episodes trigger life threatening cardiac arrhythmias like V-Tach and Atrial Fibrillation. (Circulation, 2002 and 2004 respectively).

3. 75% of deaths in the first 6 months after a heart attack are attributed to depression. (JAMA 1993.)

4. A simple cut takes 25% longer to heal when you are stressed out. (Lancet 1995).

I could keep listing stats, but what is clear to me is that while we can focus on cholesterol sub-types and blood sugar levels – the things that drive heart disease – the role of emotions in driving real cardiovascular events is real and not enough people take this seriously.

So how do you have a healthier heart and simultaneously life a life of meaning purpose and fulfillment?

1. Improve Your HRV. HRV, or Heart Rate Variability, is a measure of your hearts resilience and flexibility in response to stress. Low HRV is associated with worse depression, heart disease, and sudden death. To improve your HRV you can follow a simple breathing exercise that soothes your sympathetic (aka “fight or flight”) nervous system, and stimulates your parasympathetic (aka “rest digest and relax”) nervous system. Just breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6 for a couple of minutes a day. A longer exhale turns on your parasympathetics and increases HRV.

2. Go to Church – Or, Something Like Church. A study that looked at over 5000 people over 28 years showed that people who attended religious services at least once per week had a 23% overall lower mortality, and a review of 42 studies looking at over 100,000 people showed that “highly religious persons” had a 29% higher chance of survival.

Today in NYC we have “the new church” as I call it. Whether it’s your sunday morning yoga community, or The Path , a bi-weekly 8am group meditation event, find a community to tap into.

3. Find True Happiness. Not the kind of euphoria that you feel after you buy a new car. But a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose in life that means something profound to you. I like Eve Ensler’s TED Talk . Eve founded something called The Vagina Monologues but her talk is more about figuring out what happiness really is and she gives my favorite definition of happiness ever at the end: Happiness is giving the world what you want most yourself. Check out the talk to see what I mean.

Robin Berzin, MD

Dr. Robin Berzin is the founder and CEO of Parsley Health. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Robin completed medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

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