Tag Archives: holidays

Joy, Stress and the Heart

The holidays grant their share of ups and downs, but this year will be especially poignant for those who experienced loss and devastation from Hurricane Sandy or the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Even if you were not affected personally, the images and stories were heart-wrenching.  But why is that pain, pressure, or tightness often felt in the chest?  Does the heart actually feel?

Metaphors of the heart abound, as in “the heart of the matter”, “take heart”, “heartless”, and the admonition to “listen to your heart.”  Since ancient times people have made this connection, attributing to the heart emotions such as joy, love, fear and anger as well as calling it the source of courage and wisdom.  Popular science of the past century dismissed this belief as a cultural relic however, and decided that emotions were generated in the brain alone.  We are now coming full circle as new research sheds light on the link between the heart, the physical organ, and the emotional states mentioned above.

For instance, though prevalent in literature, until recently a broken heart was never actually recognized in a conventional medical setting.  It is now a well-documented phenomenon that occurs in response to a stress, like the death of a loved one, causing part of the heart to enlarge and pump inefficiently.  The symptoms of broken heart syndrome may include sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heart-beat and generalized weakness.  Though the symptoms are treatable and the condition resolves on it’s own, if you or a loved one should experience these symptoms call 911 for medical assistance immediately.

The effects of chronic stress on the body have also been well documented.  Stress is defined as an emotional state generated when perceived demands outweigh one’s resources.  Positive and negative life events may both create stress.  Cardiovascular health is not immune to life stressors.  A study released this fall suggests that heart attack risk rises significantly with unemployment, as high in fact as the risks imposed by smoking, having diabetes, or hypertension.  Multiple job losses posed even higher risks in this study.  Another group of researchers recently reported finding high correlations between job strain and coronary heart disease.

These findings are not surprising given what is going on in the body in response to stress.  Tightness, pressure or heaviness in the chest is due in part to stress hormones like adrenaline, which temporarily raise blood pressure, heart rate, constrict coronary arteries, and cause chaotic heart rhythms.  This erratic heart rhythm is detected by the brain and is interpreted as pain in the chest.  The heart and the brain are in communication, but most of the signaling actually originates in the heart.  Stress also raises cortisol, another adrenal hormone, which in turn raises blood sugar and lipids.  Muscular tension in the chest and abdomen constricts our breathing, which if habitual, reinforces the stress response long after the threat has left.  Though these reactions are automatic, each time we take notice of these sensations we create opportunities to modify our body’s response to stress in the future.

Close your eyes for a moment, take a few breaths, and picture something that you sincerely appreciated…   What kind of sensations do you have in your body as a result?  If you had a feeling of lightness, expansion, or warmth in your chest you had a physiological response that has been the subject of investigation for years at the Institute of HearthMath.  If stress, worry, isolation, anger, and fear produce negative outcomes in our body, they wondered, what can positive emotions like joy, love, and gratitude do for us?  They observed that the heart beats in a coherent rhythm while experiencing joy.  These patterns directly improve how we feel and our level of cognitive functioning, as well as synchronizing the cardiovascular, nervous, hormonal and immune systems.  The ancients were right after-all, the heart is far more multifaceted and significant than a mere pump.

A balanced diet and exercise are a great place to start for a healthy heart.  Daily meditation, prayer or time dedicated to nurturing feelings of love and gratitude can also significantly reduce the effects that negative emotions have on your heart.  A cardiovascular risk assessment with your naturopathic doctor may reveal other natural options for reducing your risks for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.  I will be lecturing about cardiovascular and diabetes prevention in 2013-stay tuned!

“Broken heart syndrome.” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/broken-heart-syndrome/DS01135.  Accessed 12/4/12.

Guarnari, M. (2006)  The Heart Speaks.  Touchstone, New York, NY.  2006.

“The Heart of the Matter.” http://rkheartmatter.blogspot.com/.  Accessed 12/4/12

Kivimäki MKawachi I. (2012) Need for More Individual-level Meta-Analyses in Social Epidemiology: Example of Job Strain and Coronary Heart Disease. Am J Epidemiol. 2012 Nov 9.  Institute of HeartMath.

The Science of the Heart:  Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance.”  http://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/introduction.html.  Accessed 12/4/12.

“Unemployed at Higher Risk for Heart Attack?” http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_131469.html.  Accessed 12/4/12