PTSD AND HEART HEALTH
As aforementioned trauma can literally render sufferers unable to connect with/to love either their SELVES or OTHERS. Therefore, in the philosophical sense, it is no shock that PTSD can lead to the proverbial ‘broken’ heart, which is not a cardiovascular disease, but a disease of the soul and spirit.
Ironically, PTSD has recently been deemed a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Research studies over the last decade have illustrated that people who experience PTSD are at increased risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death. As with pain, many mechanisms have been implicated in this relationship. Why are veterans likely to experience co-morbid cardiovascular disease (CVD)?
On a purely biological level, PTSD leads to physiological changes, including states of “hyper-arousal,” characterized by increased sympathetic system activity (i.e., increased blood pressure, heart rate, etc). This constant physiological arousal (constant “fight or flight” mode) can damage the cardiovascular system. Meaning, the actual physical toll that constant hyper-arousal takes is that it places a huge BURDEN on one’s heart.
In addition to a biological explanation, there are many poor health behaviors associated with this risk as well.
- People who experience psychological stress, including PTSD, are more likely to be non-adherent to medication and other treatment recommendations. Those with PTSD suffering from, for example, hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes are more likely to suffer a related cardiac event if they don’t take medication and leave the disease uncontrolled.
- People suffering with PTSD are at increased risk for tobacco use (almost twice as high as the general populations) as a way to self-medicate to decrease anxiety levels. Smoking, however, can cause CVD through atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and increased risk for thrombosis (blood clot). Quitting also becomes more difficult because the withdrawal period will likely also lead to amplified physiological hyper-arousal.
- Those with PTSD are not future-oriented and are often shortsighted about their health, making it appear unnecessary to take any preventive measures, such as physical exercise, which is essential for heart health.
- Additionally, many with PTSD fear that exercise might actually cause increased health difficulties. Increased physical activity leads to increased physical arousal, and therefore, exercise is avoided so as not to recreate that “fight or flight” feeling.
Overall, on a behavioral level, those suffering with PTSD have a greater tendency toward the adoption of high-risk behaviors (i.e., smoking, drug use, etc). At the same time they are less likely to take preventive measures.
It is crucial that those with PTSD are informed about the need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In addition to interventions specifically tailored to symptoms of PTSD, interventions geared toward specific lifestyle changes are warranted (i.e., smoking cessation programs, treatment compliance programs, etc) to prevent cardiovascular events.
What are YOUR thoughts? We always love to hear what you have to say in the comments section below.
Jennifer Wolkin, PhD