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As part of the “Heart Smarts” series, “Today” explores the link between your heart health and your emotions. The heart's more than a pump — it actually sends messages to the brain. Dr. Rollin McCraty of the Institute of HeartMath visited “Today” to discuss the science behind the theory.
An appreciative heart is good medicine
Psychologists once maintained that emotions were purely mental expressions generated by the brain alone. We now know that this is not true — emotions have as much to do with the heart and body as they do with the brain. Of the bodily organs, the heart plays a particularly important role in our emotional experience. The experience of an emotion results from the brain, heart and body acting in concert.
The Institute of HeartMath, a research center dedicated to the study of the heart and the physiology of emotions, has conducted numerous studies identifying the relationship between emotions and the heart. A number of their studies have provided new insight into understanding how the activity of the heart is indeed linked to our emotions and our health, vitality and well-being.
Emotions and the heart
Recent HeartMath studies define a critical link between the heart and brain. The heart is in a constant two-way dialogue with the brain — our emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart responds in complex ways. However, we now know that the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. And the brain responds to the heart in many important ways. This research explains how the heart responds to emotional and mental reactions and why certain emotions stress the body and drain our energy. As we experience feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity, our heart rhythm patterns become more erratic. These erratic patterns are sent to the emotional centers in the brain, which it recognizes as negative or stressful feelings. These signals create the actual feelings we experience in the heart area and the body. The erratic heart rhythms also block our ability to think clearly.
Many studies have found that the risk of developing heart disease is significantly increased for people who often experience stressful emotions such as irritation, anger or frustration. These emotions create a chain reaction in the body — stress hormone levels increase, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and the immune system is weakened. If we consistently experience these emotions, it can put a strain on the heart and other organs, and eventually lead to serious health problems.
Conversely, HeartMath’s research shows that when we experience heart-felt emotions like love, care, appreciation and compassion, the heart produces a very different rhythm. In this case it is a smooth pattern that looks like gently rolling hills. Harmonious heart rhythms, which reflect positive emotions, are considered to be indicators of cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. This lets the brain know that the heart feels good and often creates a gentle warm feeling in the area of the heart. Learning to shift out of stressful emotional reactions to these heartfelt emotions can have profound positive effects on the cardiovascular system and on our overall health. It is easy to see how our heart and emotions are linked and how we can shift our heart into a more efficient state by monitoring its rhythms.
Benefits come from being appreciative
The feeling of appreciation is one of the most concrete and easiest positive emotions for individuals to self-generate and sustain for longer periods. Almost anyone can find something to genuinely appreciate. By simply recalling a time when you felt sincere appreciation and recreating that feeling, you can increase your heart rhythm coherence, reduce emotional stress and improve your health.
For people who may initially find it difficult to self-generate a feeling of appreciation in the present moment, experts suggest that they recall a past memory that elicits warm feelings. With practice, most people are able to self-generate feelings of appreciation in real time and no longer need the past time reference. Dr. Rollin McCraty, director of research for the Institute of HeartMath, says, “It’s important to emphasize that it is not a mental image of a memory that creates a shift in our heart rhythm, but rather the emotions associated with the memory. Mental images alone usually do not produce the same significant results that we’ve observed when someone focuses on a positive feeling.”
Positive emotion-focused techniques, like those developed by HeartMath, can help individuals effectively replace stressful thoughts and emotional patterns with more positive perceptions and emotions. One of the long-term benefits to be gained from the practice of these kinds of techniques is increased emotional awareness. This increased awareness can help individuals maintain a more consistent emotional balance, a fundamental step in the process of improving cardiovascular health.
Diet and exercise will continue to be an important factor in keeping the heart healthy. However, there is increasing awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy emotional state for those recovering from heart-related illnesses, as well as for maintaining heart health. Studies have shown that positive emotion-focused techniques reduce stress and anxiety, which is a safe and effective way to lower blood pressure and increase functional capacity in heart failure patients. This approach is currently being used in a number of hospitals and cardiac rehabilitation programs around the country.
For more information on the Institute of HeartMath, check out www.heartmath.org/today.