Heart Health Risks from Domestic Violence

By Jessica M. Corvo

February is American Heart Health Month. Trauma-related cardiovascular issues are more common than previously thought. Domestic violence can cause emotional and physical trauma, both can wreak havoc on the heart.

For over a decade, heart disease and cancer have competed for the top spot as a leading cause of death in the USA. “Heart disease causes 1 in 4 deaths. The term ‘heart disease’ refers to several types of heart conditions…” the CDC continues, “You can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medicine.”

Survivors of domestic violence who prioritize their recovery and health are less likely to experience heart complications later in life. This article explores the connection between domestic violence and heart health whilst sharing tips for healthy heart habits.

Fight or Flight

When in fight or flight mode, victims of domestic violence respond to fear and stress by releasing hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into the body. Short term, these hormones are necessary to fuel the body to fight back or escape danger. According to the Mayo Clinic, “adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.” Long term, these hormones are harmful to the heart. Approximately 15 minutes after exposure to stress, cortisol levels increase and stay elevated for hours. Victims in chronic fight or flight mode accumulate high levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol result in increased blood cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and triglycerides. These are common risk factors for heart disease.

Healthy heart habit 1: Meditate. Harvard Medical School suggests, “This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors. Anyone can learn to meditate. Just take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.” 

Mood

Domestic violence can turn an easy-going, light-hearted and free-spirited person into a self-critical, anxiety fuelled and emotionally depressed person. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 322 million people live with depression. “Women in violent relationships have nearly twice the risk of depression,” suggests behavioral Health Company, Promises. Studies from Johns Hopkins and ONHealth connect depression and heart disease as being common companions. Depression is an important risk factor for heart disease.

Healthy heart habit 2: Exercise. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests movement and exercise as a productive way to stabilize mood and overall health, especially heart health. 

Sleep

SleepFoundation.org states, “Sleep is essential for a healthy heart. People who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease…”

Victims of domestic violence are often sleep deprived. Victims kept in a state of fear, late nights of worrying about their personal safety, among other things, are at higher risk of heart complications. Healthy sleep habits include seven hours of sleep each night. The body requires this time to repair itself. 

Healthy heart habit 3: Power naps. American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests power naps to support health. In a perfect world, victims and survivors can follow these healthy sleep habits. If this list is overwhelming, try starting with a power nap. Since sleep is when our body systems repair themselves, our heart is relying on us. Let’s make power naps a trend.

Nutrition

Victims of domestic violence oftentimes experience a loss of appetite, lack of creativity or simply lack the desire to eat real food. Loss of appetite limits the ability to fuel the body with adequate nutrients. Lack of creativity limits the ability to create meals of adequate nutrients to fuel the body. I know when I’m not feeling well, my go-to is the easiest meal I can find in the house. Generally speaking, if I do not have pre-prepared food containers, I end up eating ramen out of the pot, a half bag of cookies or sliced bread with anything spreadable. Sometimes, opening and closing the refrigerator door in hopes to find a spreadable magic ingredient is about all the energy I have at that exact moment. When the body does not receive adequate nutrients, it puts stress on multiple systems resulting in putting stress on the heart. The American Heart Association shares insights on processed versus ultra-processed food and why it matters to your health.

Healthy heart habit 4: Food. Eat real food. Survivors can create easy meals on the go. I keep six to eight pre-prepared meals in my freezer. This ensures I am able to eat real food at all times. Need meal prep inspiration? Here is a very useful blog.

Additional Healthy Heart Habits:

  • Talk about it: When visiting your doctor, be sure to tell medical practitioners your situation. If you experienced domestic violence, tell them. If you are still being abused, tell them. Even if they don’t ask, tell them. Your health is important.
  • Laugh: I once heard someone say laughter is the soul having an orgasm. Whether it’s true or not, this idea made me giggle and inspired me to find something to laugh about every single day.
  • Community: surround yourself with people that make you feel good about yourself. Recovery is hard enough. Make sure the people you allow into your space help you and promote healthy habits.
  • Knowledge: Heart Attack & Stroke Symptoms: I’m guilty of jumping down the rabbit hole and being a WebMD PhD. To prevent misdiagnosing myself, please take a look at the American Heart Association symptom checklist. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please consult a medical professional immediately.

Health is wealth. Heart health is wealth. Domestic violence wreaks havoc on our lives in so many ways. Let today be day one when we take control of our health. If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, please share this story. Let’s make heart health a priority.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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