For weeks now we have seen red hearts, sweet hearts, cards with animals holding hearts, and heart boxes with chocolates. Love is in the air – and too, the sign we are quickly approaching Valentine’s Day!
Interestingly, the traditional heart shape does not resemble our human heart. One of the leading legends for its form is that ancient philosophers equated the human heart with the center of emotion – thus made the shape a bit more attractive (ancient emoji). Throughout time, it has remained one of the single most enduring and recognized symbols – as well as a symbol representing what fuels our emotions. And for good reason!! As of the bodily organs, the heart plays an important role in our emotional experience. Through more research, we know that emotions do indeed have as much to do with the heart and body as they do with the brain. In other words, the experience of an emotion results from the heart, brain and body acting in concert.
The HeartMath Institute (HMI), a research center dedicated to the study of the heart and the physiology of emotions, has conducted studies identifying the relationship between emotions and the heart. The research provides great insight into understanding how the activity of the heart is linked to our emotions and our overall health, vitality and well-being. In fact, they have defined a critical link between the heart and brain. Our heart is in a constant two-way dialogue with our brain — our emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart responds in complex ways. We also 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.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Emotions and Our Heart’s Health
Managing Heart & Mind: Studies confirm the risk of developing heart disease is significantly increased for people who routinely experience stressful emotions (irritation, anger or frustration) which creates a chain reaction in the body — stress hormone levels increase, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and our immune system is weakened. If we consistently experience these emotions, it can put a strain on our heart and other organs – eventually leading to serious health problems.
Conversely, when we experience heart-felt emotions like love, care, appreciation, connection, joy and compassion, the heart produces a very different rhythm (a smooth pattern that looks like gently rolling hills). These heart rhythms, which reflect positive emotions, are considered to be indicators of harmonious cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. This communicates to the brain that the heart feels good.
Learning to establish healthy boundaries and shift out of stressful emotional reactions to these positive emotions can have profound positive effects on the cardiovascular system –
and on our overall health.
Along with a healthy diet and boundaries, staying physically active and maintaining good sleep hygiene, experts recommend scheduling time devoted to at least 15-20 minutes a day to doing something enjoyable and relaxing. (And to make sure not to be too busy that you abandon this time!!)
Social Connections: In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that people with strong social relationships had lower blood pressure, lower markers of inflammation and weighed less. Elevated blood pressure forces our heart to work harder and over time abnormally enlarge and thicken. As a result, the heart muscle has a greater oxygen demand–there’s more muscle. But at the same time, the thicker heart muscle hinders blood from flowing easily through it, thereby decreasing oxygen supply.
Also, inflammatory states in our body promote fatty plaque buildup in arteries, known as atherosclerosis. This can impede blood flow, much like rust inside a pipe. And too, if a plaque ruptures, it can cause complete occlusion of the vessel and cell death within minutes from a lack of oxygen.
Appreciation: By simply recalling a time when you felt sincerely appreciative and recreating that feeling, you can increase your balanced heart rhythm, reduce emotional stress and improve your health. The feeling of appreciation is one of the most concrete and easiest positive emotions to self-generate and sustain for longer periods.
Hugs, Holding Hands & Kisses: With all of the heart health benefits that result from hugging, we have great reason to share hugs multiple times, every day, all-year-round.
Science has shown that when we embrace someone we care about it can ease stress and anxiety as well as lower blood pressure. The reason: a hug stimulates pressure receptors in our skin that then go on to communicate with and trigger our vagus nerve. And because the vagus nerve has great influence over heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure—vital signs that affect our heart’s health–when it is activated, the risk for heart disease and other major killers is decreased. Add to this, hugging also causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone produced in our brain that is often dubbed the “love hormone” because it promotes social bonding. And, interestingly enough, it also can elicit a long-term decrease in blood pressure and decrease the amount of work our heart must perform.
And yes, similar to hugs, contact from holding hands or kissing also has meaningful benefits. A sweet embrace and kiss or hug can increase oxytocin and decrease stress, both of which lower blood pressure.
Pets Can Be Your Heart’s Best Friend: When the door opens, an owner feels the love when met by their pet!! Pets can be great friends!! For decades, studies have linked pet ownership to better physical and mental health reporting that pets help lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety while boosting immunity.
A panel of experts from the American Heart Association (AHA) has weighed all the available evidence and their verdict is: Having a pet—a dog in particular—likely lowers the risk of heart disease. The evidence reviewed by the AHA indicates that dog owners are more likely to exercise, have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress and be more likely to survive a heart attack.
Everything about our heart and mind (emotions) are powerful for our well-being. In fact, heartache and heartbreak can figuratively and literally, break our heart. According to the American Heart Association, broken heart syndrome results from emotionally stressful events that cause the release of stress hormones. This can temporarily enlarge the heart and impair its ability to pump blood efficiently as well as create electrical rhythm disturbances. Symptoms can mimic that of a heart attack—chest pain, shortness of breath. Fortunately, with early medical attention, most patients can make a full recovery.
In closing, it is important to understand the physical and emotional connection for a healthy heart. And again, the best way to look after your heart is with a healthy lifestyle. Take action to manage stress; set healthy relationship boundaries; connect with others; express gratitude and savor joy in the moment; eat a balanced diet, engage in regular physical activity, maintain healthy sleep routines, avoid smoking and moderate alcohol consumption. (If you – or someone you love – is struggling with any of these, seek professional medical help).
As we step into this heart-centric holiday, Valentine’s Day, let’s remember the health of our hearts — physically and emotionally. Enjoy connecting with loved ones – sharing in the appreciation and warm hugs!! Happy Valentine’s Day!!