Features November 2019 Issue

An Attitude of Gratitude Is Good Medicine

Do your heart a favor and take stock of the things you are thankful for.

It's almost Thanksgiving, the iconic American holiday centered on food. The mere mention of Thanksgiving conjures up images of a juicy turkey with all its trimmings and a table full of pies.

This year while you are chopping, stuffing, basting and feasting, take a few minutes to reflect on what you are thankful for. Did you survive a heart attack? Did a new pacemaker put pep in your step? After months of trial and error, is your blood pressure finally under control?

Thankfulness, in itself, is good medicine.

"Multiple studies have shown a link between positive emotions like gratitude and heart health," says Cleveland Clinic psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD.

A Happy Heartbeat

1 Attituded

Cecilie_Arcurs | Getty Images

Positive emotions like gratitude and compassion have many beneficial effects on the heart and immune system.

One way a positive attitude benefits the heart is by improving heart rate variability.

A heart that can beat faster or slower in response to demand is a healthier heart.

Good heart rate variability indicates that the body's autonomic nervous system, which controls blood pressure, heart rate and other involuntary functions, is working well.

Having good heart rate variability improves the body's immune response to stress, decreases inflammation and lowers mortality risk.

Poor heart-rate variability is common in patients with coronary artery disease and is associated with increased mortality risk.

"Negative mood states, such as depression and anxiety, are associated with lower heart rate variability, which may pose an additional barrier when it comes to recovering from or dealing with cardiovascular conditions," says Dr. Fisher.

Banish Negativity

Fostering a sense of gratitude is one way to counter negative emotions, such as anger and depression. There are plenty of studies linking these and other chronic forms of negative psychosocial stress to coronary artery disease. In the INTERHEART study, which included 25,000 people from more than 50 countries, individuals who experienced negative stress on a daily basis had more than twice the risk of heart attack than those without chronic stress.

Be Kind to Yourself

Happy people tend to be optimistic and more likely to take care of themselves. In one study of patients who were recently diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome-an umbrella term for any type of heart attack-those who expressed gratitude for their health after the event were more likely to be physically active six months later. Those who said they were grateful for their lives were more likely to take their medications as prescribed.

That doesn't surprise Dr. Fisher.

"Positive emotions make us feel more engaged and capable of being in charge of our health, rather than feeling hopeless and out of control," she says.

Practice Gratitude

Even if it has been a tough year, there is something to be grateful for.

If you lost a special person in your life, think about someone who makes you smile. If you're worried about your finances, be thankful you can afford to have food on your table.

If you're worried that your life is spinning out of control, meditate, pray or think positive thoughts.

If you or someone you love has heart disease, express your gratitude for the doctors, nurses, hospitals and advances in heart care that enable you to celebrate this holiday.

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