Is Mediation Better For Your Heart? Evidence Says Yes

Law Matters By Brenda Waugh

February marks American Heart Month, a dedicated time to prioritize cardiovascular health. Amidst the advice on diet changes and exercise, the role of how legal conflicts impact our heart health might be overlooked. As a lawyer/mediator, I’ve observed that legal proceedings may be harmful to our health!  They increase our underlying stress, make us feel out of control, often further destroy relationships, and tend to increase episodes of anger. All of these emotional responses can be destructive to our hearts, and the damage may persist long after the legal case is over.

A recent study at Johns Hopkins University followed a group of women and men over age 18, and found that those with 
multiple divorces had a higher risk of a heart attack.  When possible, alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, can reduce some risks created by litigation. When we are working together to resolve a problem rather than attacking it as adversarial, the negative health impact may be mitigated. So, this month when you are working to clean up your diet and increase your exercise, consider selecting ADR over litigation when you have a legal problem.

Stress. Legal proceedings, particularly litigation, can be stress-inducing. Studies show a correlation between stress, including that generated by legal conflicts, and an increased risk of heart-related issues. Elevated cortisol levels that are released during stress can lead to higher risks of heart disease. Even short-term stress impacts blood flow and raises the risk of stroke. One study, known as Interheart, showed that psychological stress is a risk factor similar in heart-damaging effects to the more commonly measured cardiovascular risks.

In contrast, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods offer alternatives, such as mediation, arbitration, collaborative law, and restorative justice. The legal problem that gives rise to litigation certainly produces stress. However, the litigation process that tends to take a long time, comes accompanied by deadlines, complex procedures, and many factors that increase the stress in resolving the legal problem. ADR processes are often faster and simpler, and serve to empower individuals, reducing stress and promoting heart health. 

Feeling a loss of control.  Feeling out of control is inherent in court proceedings.  Judges make decisions, lawyers know things that the parties don’t understand.  Your body responds to feelings of loss of control by increasing the amount of stress hormones in your body, which increases the amount of inflammation in your body, which increases your heart rate and/or irregular heartbeats, 

Strained relationships. Legal disputes often further strain relationships,  
contributing to heart disease. ADR processes like restorative justice and transformative mediation prioritize repairing relationships and acknowledging the impact of healthy relationships on cardiovascular health. One form of strained 
relationship, broken heart syndrome, is a sudden weakness in the heart muscle, that can result from emotionally stressful events.

Cardiologist Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, writing in the New York Times, claims that unhappy relationships (and work stress and poverty) influence heart disease. He cites studies that demonstrate that people who feel socially isolated or chronically stressed by work or relationships are more prone to heart attacks and strokes.

Anger. Litigation often fuels anger among litigants, further risking heart health. Anger during arguments or disputes can increase heart rates and long-term health problems. “Studies show there may be a link between patients with increased anger and a higher risk of developing premature coronary heart disease and suffering coronary events,” says Druenell Linton, M.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont. “The link is likely both direct, via damage of the vessel wall, and indirect, as these patients often have more risk factors like smoking, hypertension, 
and hyperlipidemia.”

While parties in mediation or any ADR process may experience anger, the process is not adversarial and does not encourage parties to blame or make accusations against the other.  This serves to minimize, rather than 
increase anger.

American Heart Month serves as a reminder not only to focus on traditional aspects of heart health but also to consider the broader impact of our daily lives, including legal matters. As lawyers and mediators, we play a crucial role in shaping outcomes and mitigating stress for individuals involved in legal disputes. Understanding the link between stress, litigation, and heart health underscores the importance of alternative dispute resolution methods.

By considering mediation, arbitration, and other ADR processes to address our legal conflicts, we can contribute to reducing the emotional toll on individuals, fostering healthier relationships, and ultimately enhancing cardiovascular well-being.

Brenda Waugh is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.