Updated: Mar 5, 2020
Everyone knows what it feels like to have their heart tighten in nervous anticipation, burst with joy during the happiest of occasions, or race when angered or fearful. Our hearts often serve as our most powerful guides when times get tough. Greek philosophers even believed that the heart was the base of all intelligence and emotions. However, hundreds of years later, it was discovered that the real function of the heart is as a pump for circulating blood throughout the body.
How did a blood pump get intricately connected to our emotions?
In recent times, Western medicine determined that emotions are centered in the brain, but the reason we feel them in our hearts is because as emotions happen in the brain, chemicals are released into our bodies. These chemicals cause the heart to beat stronger and faster. Hence, the heart is where we feel our emotions, even though the change in heart rate is only consequence of them.
But not so fast—science shows that our hearts have more to do with our emotions than that! As of this writing, neuroscientists have taken a more “systems-oriented” approach to our complex emotions; it’s a two-way street with both the heart and the brain playing major roles. The brain receives input from the heart and makes sense of it, assigning emotions to the movements of the heart. This means that the current scientific focus is more in line with the ancient Greeks; the more things change, the more they stay the same! This also returns the heart to its previous position as being a key component of the emotional system—so keeping it healthy is a must!
February is National Heart Month, which focuses our attention on doing things to keep your heart healthy and hale. Since we’ve established that the heart is deeply connected with our emotions, it means there are more things we can do to keep our hearts working at their very best. Let’s step back and think about a more holistic meaning of heart health--the physical and the emotional aspects of a healthy heart.
The physical side to keeping your heart healthy is easily summed up: don’t smoke, get regular exercise and maintain a healthy diet full of fruits, veggies and whole grains and limit processed food with lot of added sugars and salts.
However, what does research say about the factors that will help keep the emotional part of your heart healthy? There are three key factors to consider to round-out truly holistic heart health.
Self-care and stress management. Unmanaged stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility can affect your heart via high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms. There are practical ways to help you lower your stress and revitalize your energy and resilience.
Deep breathing and meditation A meditation practice supports your heart in many ways — from changing how you cope with stress to lowering high blood pressure to increasing heart rate variability, which is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk..
An attitude of gratitude Studies have found that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal show reductions in levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability. A more grateful heart is a healthier heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy path to holistic heart health
Progressive Muscle Relaxation The physical component involves the tensing and relaxing of muscle groups, while the mental component requires that the individual focuses on the distinction between the feelings of the tension and relaxation. Benefits include reduction of stress hormones, anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate and even better management of cardiac rehabilitation and improvement of quality of life of patients after bypass surgery.
Social Networking. Research has shown strong social ties are an important contributor to health outcomes that may rival the effects of many traditional risk factors including smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity.
Try making a new friend by inviting a friendly acquaintance to coffee, ask them questions, actively listen, and be open to sharing.
Invest some time in an existing friendship by sharing with them what makes them so special to you and what you appreciate about them.
Join in group activities. Finding a group of others that share your interests can lead to an enhanced social network.
Optimism. Several large studies people have found optimism to be associated with lower rates of heart disease or cardiac mortality. While some people are born more optimistic than other, it can also be learned and have incredible benefits. It’s far easier said than done, of course, but finding the silver lining when you’re feeling pessimistic is fantastic for your heart. When put forth that extra effort to seek the rainbow in every storm, you’re literally strengthening your heart!
Being truly heart-healthy goes far beyond the physical. Knowing more about how tapping into the emotional aspect of your health and practicing good stress management, being social, and optimistic can provide your ticker with more ticks—and more reasons to keep it ticking!