Depression and Heart Disease
By Laurie Erdman, Owning Pink
I have nothing good to say about depression. Depression has robbed my life of some very special people. Ten years ago I lost my best friend, Clay Whitmer, to suicide after years of depression. My father’s alcoholism — rooted in depression — robbed me of a loving father growing up. And then there is my mom. Eleven years ago, she died of heart disease. Huh? Yes, as CNN recently reported, a new study shows a link between heart disease and depression and gloomy personalities.
The researchers used a model called Type-D personality type to identify the high risk group. Type-D personalities are “characterized by negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, and anger, and at the same time score high on social inhibition, meaning that they are less likely to disclose emotions,” according to one of the researchers. These individuals have an almost four times greater risk of a heart attack, heart failure death or other negative outcome, compared to heart patients with different personality profiles. Yicks.
We all know that diet and smoking increases our risk of heart disease, but now they are telling us our personality can put us at risk too? Wow. So I can eat my vegetables and do my yoga, but if I am a negative personality type, I am still at greater risk of heart disease. But how do I change my personality?
This is big news. Big enough and scary enough that I first had to ask if it even makes sense. And if so, what does a Type-D personality do to decrease their risk?
An eye witness account
I was not surprised by these findings. My mother was depressed, suffered from low self-esteem, frequently frustrated and prone to pessimism; a borderline Type-D personality. She died at 53 of a heart attack after a decade of suffering from heart disease, type-II diabetes and an auto-immune disease. Her conditions further exacerbated her negative life outlook. She talked of amputations and wheelchairs in her future. Yet, she couldn’t help herself. The dietary and exercise recommendations her doctors gave her were “too tough.” I would get upset when she would come home and only eat cereal for dinner because it was the easiest low-fat thing to eat. I would coach her (at her request) on how to prepare yummy meals. But she was so pessimistic and negative about her situation, and so depressed, that there was no amount of my coaching that was going to change matters. When a person is clinically depressed it is nearly impossible to make the necessary lifestyle changes, at least without some kind of professional intervention. So can depression or a gloomy personality contribute to heart disease? Yes — at least my experience certainly confirms the research results.
In contemplating this new research, I was reminded of the story of Dean Ornish as an undergraduate student. In Blessings in Disguise, he shares his own story of depression as a college freshman and how he contemplated, and even began preparing for, suicide. Dr. Dean Ornish went on to conduct comprehensive research and develop a protocol shown to reverse heart disease. That protocol, referred to as the Spectrum Program, focuses on lifestyle changes related to diet, exercise and stress management in the form of meditation and yoga and other techniques also known to help alleviate depression. Not exactly a coincidence.
So Dr. Ornish has shown us that heart disease can be prevented. But this new research is a wake up call. Some individuals may need more than meditation and yoga. Having suffered from two bouts of depression myself, witnessing the depression of those around me, and adjusting to the realities of my own health issues, I can tell you that getting rid of depression takes more than lifestyle change.
An alien has invaded my mind and body
In my second and worst bout of depression, I felt like I was someone else. I didn’t know who I was. I would cry without reason. I felt lonely all the time, which was an odd feeling for a happy only child. I felt as if I had been attacked by a dementor in a Harry Potter novel. I couldn’t shake the feelings or thoughts of doom and gloom. There was no controlling those emotions of sadness, no matter how much I tried. I felt like I had been taken over by an alien. No amount of yoga was going to exorcise this demon.
Help is available and it works
The good news about this new study is that Type-D personalities (whether clinically depressed or not), can now be targeted as an at-risk group. In addition to diet, exercise and stress management, we may find these individuals benefit from therapy. There are many types of therapies, and if you are depressed or you believe you are a Type-D personality, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Being depressed, angry and frustrated is no way to go through life. And as we have now confirmed, it can also kill you.
I know some people are hesitant or embarrassed about being in therapy. As someone who has spent almost ten non-consecutive years in therapy, I say “don’t be.” It is much less embarrassing to spill your guts to a therapist than to cry all the way home on the bus every night. Trust me on this!
I was hesitant to try therapy during my first bout with depression. In fact, my first therapist was a dud. But I was feeling too awful to give up. A few more tries and I finally found someone I could connect with. That professional helped me get through my sophomore year in college in tact.
I have gone back to therapy at different stages in my life. Whether dealing with a full-blown case of clinical depression in my thirties, or being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in my forties, I have turned to therapists to help me through tough and confusing times. Some periods of therapy took longer than others, but in each case I found peace with who I am and my circumstances. My stress levels were reduced. I found joy. And now, I see that I might have even been saving my life.
If you are at-risk according to this new research, please seek help. It could be the single most important gift you give yourself!
Has heart disease touched your life? Have you see a connection between a Type-D personality and heart disease in your life? Are you a Type-D personality? What do you think of this study? Will you do anything to change your personality?
I used to be Type-A. But over the last year have become a solid B. Have you changed your personality type? If so, tell us how.