How has psychology contibuted to the understanding and treatment of coronary heart disease?
Coronary heart disease has a number of causes, from genetic predisposition to behavioral factors that cause damage to the lining of arteries, factors that include overconsumption of foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol and smoking. In addition, failure to address stress can lead to a variety of mental and physical health problems, including an increased risk of heart disease. The relationship of stress to health problems like heart disease are not fully understood, but many physicians and medical researchers do believe that a connection exists, including the extent which individual respond to stress through unhealthy activities like overeating and smoking. The combination of elevated blood pressure associated with stress and clogged arteries from consumption of foods high in cholesterol is certainly a recipe for disaster. The bottom line, then, is that mental health is connected to physical health, including the risk factors for coronary heart disease.
Which brings us to the role of psychology in understanding and treating patients with coronary heart disease, or who are candidates for heart disease. Psychologists specialize in identifying and addressing the emotional factors that contribute to the development of more serious physical maladies. A difficulty dealing with stress, whether related to one’s job or family or any other cause, will eventually result in physical illness. The role of psychology, then, is to help the patient learn to deal with stress and with behavioral patterns like overeating and smoking that contribute to the development of heart disease. By isolating the factors that cause an individual’s stress, psychologists help the patient to develop ways to avoid those factors or, if avoidance is not possible, to accept and handle those factors. For example, walking away from a stressful job is rarely an option; the key is learning to handle the stress that comes with many jobs. This can include learning to process information in a way that makes the stress-inducing factors easier to minimize or eliminate or can involve breathing exercises that calm one’s body by diverting one’s focus and increasing the flow of oxygen to the brain (breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth).
The emotional component of peoples’ overall health is frequently ignored because of the stigma associated with mental health treatment. That is unfortunate, because mental and physical health are inherently linked, and treating the physical symptoms without simultaneously addressing the mental ones is a half-measure.