Be kind to your heart and health and turn off the news, doctors say.

Northwestern University experts suggest checking in on current events a couple of times a day and no more. Constant updates can fuel anxiety and depression, they warn.

“As a practicing preventive cardiologist, one of the most common risk factors for heart disease that I am seeing this year is stress,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, assistant professor of cardiology and epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “I know we can all agree it has been an extremely stressful year for all in every aspect of our lives, including stress related to the pandemic and associated health, financial and political events.”

Constant news updates pile on layer upon layer of stress, according to Dr. Aderonke Pederson, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine.

“That cumulative stress can translate into increased risks of heart problems, diabetes and more,” she said. “Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, especially when untreated, can increase your risk for chronic health conditions like diabetes, cardiac events and heart disease and can complicate symptoms of asthma. So, there’s a feedback loop of mental health conditions and physical health conditions.”

The doctors offered several coping strategies, including getting a good night’s sleep and calming your mind a couple hours before bedtime with a light-hearted book, journaling, playing a game or taking a warm bath.

“To reduce the consequences of stress, try to focus on heart-healthy behaviors that can reduce your risk, such as exercising, enjoying a healthy diet and finding ways to maintain a positive attitude,” Khan said. “If you already have risk factors for heart disease, it’s important to check in with your doctor to make sure stress is not making it worse.”

Pederson noted that these issues are multiplied for Black people, who have been especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Discrimination exacerbates the risk of mental and physical health issues,” she said. “African-Americans are less likely to be offered services and treatments for mental health issues, experience stigma related to mental health and tend to delay seeking care, so it’s a multi-fold problem.”

The doctors recommend checking in on family members who might be feeling overwhelmed and encouraging them to seek help from support groups or primary care providers who can refer them for mental health services.

“I often tell my patients to tell me every negative thing that’s happened,” Pederson said. “This focuses on their resiliency and helps them process their experiences. Being kind and patient with ourselves and taking stock of all the things we’ve survived will help us as we move forward.”

She said it’s vital to accept what you can’t control and stay hopeful.

“While there is a lot of chaos, there are still positives, such as the vaccine, which will soon be available to many individuals,” Pederson said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for coping with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, Jan. 15, 2021