Welcome Wellness - The Heart Knows

How to keep your cardiovascular system healthy in times of social isolation 

By the Department of Psychiatry’s wellness advocate, Dr. Deirdre Conroy:


February is American Heart Month, so this month we focus on matters of the heart -- the real heart, that pumping organ that sits in your chest! We all know that social connection is important for mental wellbeing, but what about physical wellbeing as well?  More specifically, what about the relationship between social connections and cardiovascular health? This month, we explore wellness and cardiovascular health with Dr. Jill Schneiderhan, a clinical assistant professor at Michigan Medicine Integrative Family Medicine Clinic.

There are several factors that play a role in cardiovascular disease that we here in psychiatry might want to brush up on, as they exemplify the intricate connection between mind and body. For example, studies show there are certain personality types that can elevate a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. One is called the “Type D personality” which is characterized by negative affectivity (depressed mood, anger, or hostility) and social inhibition (Compare et al 2014). With the prolonged social isolation of the pandemic, there may be an increased rate of negative affectivity which could not only lead to mental health complications, but cardiovascular complications as well. 

As Dr. Dean Ornish states in his book, Reversing Heart Disease The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery:

“…anything that promotes a sense of isolation leads to chronic stress and, often, to illnesses like heart disease. Conversely, anything that leads to real intimacy and feelings of connection can be healing in the real sense of the word: to bring together, to make whole.”

I asked Dr. Schneiderhan, given the isolation we may be experiencing during the pandemic, are there specific recommendations you give to your patients who are at risk for or have cardiovascular disease? 

She recommends that “patients activate their social networks in any way they can during this time. As much as we might miss the ways we used to connect with people – try to remember to be grateful for the resources you have. If you can talk to a friend on the phone – do it! Or take a walk with a neighbor. Or send a postcard to a friend. And if even these are scarce then I would recommend spending some time remembering and reflecting on the connections you most prize – just sitting in those memories can activate all kinds of healthy neural connections!”

For more tips on how to reduce your risk of hypertension and heart disease, see the MHealthy webpage. Additional healthy lifestyle recommendations include a vegetarian low fat diet, moderate physical activity, tobacco cessation, group support, and stress reduction/relaxation. Think you’ve heard it all? Test your knowledge by taking this Heart Health IQ Challenge.


Reference: Compare, Angelo; Mommersteeg, Paula M.C.; Faletra, Francesco; Grossi, Enzo; Pasotti, Elena; Moccetti, Tiziano; Auricchio, Angelo Personality traits, cardiac risk factors, and their association with presence and severity of coronary artery plaque in people with no history of cardiovascular disease, Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine: May 2014 - Volume 15 - Issue 5 - p 423-430