How Resilience Protects Your Heart — Inside and Out

“What’s your why?”

I knew that question would be a great ice-breaker at the American Heart Association event I was hosting.

The answers came quickly, and all of them were personal: names of relatives and friends who had survived — or not — heart disease or stroke. Some answers struck even closer to home: “I’m a survivor,” or, “I’m at high risk myself.”

Like everybody else, I could easily name someone: my mother. She died of a heart attack at age 74.

While other people were identifying the usual culprits— an unhealthy lifestyle or genetic factor — I decided this was not the time or place to share what figured most prominently in my mother’s demise.

It was the progression of another deadly disease — her decades-long addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.

So it’s no surprise that my expertise in dealing with the other side of addiction started with my “home-schooling” on the subject.

While I totally get the need to “know your numbers,” (cholesterol, blood sugar, etc.) and to eat right and exercise, and while I’m an advocate for CPR training and healthier food options — whether in schools or urban food deserts — I’m particularly interested in how the stress in our heads affects the health of our hearts.

Some of these mind-body heavy hitters are enough to double your risk of a heart attack or stroke:

You’re lonely
You’re in a bad marriage
You’re clinically depressed
Your primary reaction to stress is anger and irritability

The mind-body connection is real. That’s why we call it broken heart syndrome (stress-induced cardiomyopathy) — because it’s often brought on by severe emotional stress or trauma:

Death of long-term spouse or partner
Major relationship breakup
Serious financial problems
Job loss
Domestic abuse

So what’s my why for serving as chair of the American Heart Association’s Louisville Circle of Red? I’m interested in how matters of the heart affect the health of the heart — and how the brain can protect the heart. In other words, I’m focused on resilience.

Resilience is what I spend most of my time working on with my clients every day: How to make meaning out of difficult experiences and find creative ways to bounce back.

Resilience was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, which included a review of the research examining a virtually universal experience:

How do people recover when they’ve been hurt or harmed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by someone important to them?
Is it necessary to forgive someone in order to recover?
What if the wrongdoer doesn’t ask for our forgiveness? What if they don’t think they did anything wrong? What if they can’t (or won’t) own up to what they did or the effect it had on you?

Evidence-Based Therapy

By the time I was doing my thesis on these questions, I had some experience with my own resilience to inform my research. Many of the evidence-based recovery methods I studied were ones I had personally found to be effective. The primary component in all these very different approaches to recovery is resilience — the ability to wrap your mind around the experience in a way that you’re not permanently warped by it, or so broken that you can’t get a grip, get up, and go on.

By recovery I don’t mean just surviving the experience. Here’s what I mean by recovery:

Without condoning, excusing, or necessarily reconciling with the one who caused the hurt or harm, you are no longer consumed with the bad feelings (anger, resentment, sadness) associated with the experience.
Without forgetting about or minimizing the experience, you have managed to let go of the bad feelings associated with it. You are not stuck in a victim mentality or identity.
Even if you choose to pursue legal, social, or other remedies, you are not obsessed with resentment or anger in the process.

During the doctoral process I ran across research on a wide variety of traditionally challenging populations that had managed to recover, including:

Parentally love-deprived adolescents
Emotionally abused women
Men hurt by the abortion decision of their partner
Incest survivors
Substance abusers

The assumption is that if people from traditionally challenging populations managed to recover, there’s a good chance the rest of us can benefit from studying how they managed to do it.

You might say resilience is one of the ways we can protect our hearts from the very real health risks associated with a saying, attributed to numerous people, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

I have much more to share about how we move from resentment to resilience and complete our journey to recovery and peace of mind. Please stay plugged in to my column to learn more.

LOUISVILLE HAND TRANSPLANT PROGRAM CELEBRATES 20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF SUCCESSFUL OPERATION

LOUISVILLE The world’s most successful hand transplant, performed in 1999 at Jewish Hospital by hand surgeons of the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center, was celebrated on March 5 with a gathering of surgeons, researchers, and providers plus the transplant recipient Matthew Scott.

According to a press release from Jewish Hospital, there are more than 200 known hand transplants on over 140 patients around the world. Many of the physicians performing these surgeries were trained through the Louisville Vascularized Composite Allograft (VCA) program, a partnership of physicians from Jewish Hospital, the Christine M. Kleinert Institute for Hand and Microsurgery, the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center, and UofL.