Stress and Your Heart
Your heart has a brain and a memory…
Posted Apr 27, 2016
Carefully embedded and safely protected by a sturdy cage, our heart starts beating at about three weeks after conception and continues to thump away minute-by-minute, decade after decade until the day we die. We generally don’t pay attention to it unless something goes awry, it stops doing its job right, and causes us to delve into the wealth of information available about this wondrous organ.
In our research on stress and how it affects the heart, we discovered that just like the brain in our cranium has left and right hemispheres, our heart has a brain comprised of two nodes. (The term "heart brain" was first introduced by Dr. J. Andrew Armour in 1991. His research showed that the heart’s complex nervous system qualified it as a "little brain.") According to Paul Pearsall in his book, The Heart’s Code, the heart’s brain is far more complex than we originally thought. The heart is much more than just a pump; it conducts the cellular symphony that is the very essence of our being. And the heart has a memory stored in its muscles, just like our brain stores our daily experiences.
Research at HeartMath Institute shows us that the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart; its rhythms affect our perception and the brain’s ability to process information; and that the signals the heart sends to the brain can affect our emotional experiences. This newer research tells us that the physical and energetic heart plays a far greater role in our lives than physicians in Western cultures had previously imagined. HeartMath research confirms that negative emotions can create nervous system chaos, while positive emotions will have the opposite soothing affect. Most significantly, we can boost our immune system functioning and create physiological benefits by focusing our vision on positive emotions.
So, in a "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" scenario, is our health and happiness more dependent on our hearts or our minds? How we think, how we feel, or how we physically care for ourselves? It seems there is no contest here; the human being is comprised of mind, body and “spirit”, or life force, and a holistic approach to maintaining the optimal balance will promote the quality of life we seek. For for too many of us in our stress-filled, time crunched daily life, it is not so easy to just say "do positive, don't do negative."
The heart remembers
A few years ago, Rose met an older Caucasian woman who had undergone a heart transplant. She was a cheerful Mid-Westerner. Prior to receiving her new heart she didn’t like spicy foods, was a teetotaler and had zero interest in sports. But after her heart transplant she craved nachos with jalapenos and hot sauce, beer – and inexplicably loved to watch basketball. This was beyond weird to her; so she decided to find out who her donor was. She discovered he was a young African American basketball player who had been in a fatal car accident. She spoke with his mother and described her new favorite things and was surprised to learn that nachos, beer and basketball were her son’s three favorite things. His grateful heart transplant recipient believed his young heart, which beat so strongly in her chest, in some way carried his memories, which she now cherished.
Stress becomes a memory stored in our hearts
In most cases, heart attacks don’t just happen. We have to stress ourselves out for years to earn a heart attack. As mentioned above, our hearts “remember” and hypertension is a muscle memory of the heart being stuck in stressful, past negatives. When our heart has stored up more past negatives than it can handle, it screams at us “Enough!” Like an angry Great White Shark, it turns on us in a most painful and too often, a deadly way.
One person we interviewed had a unique experience to share. In her early forties and feeling on the verge of a breakdown, Amy took it upon herself to eliminate all the external stress factors from her life. Unmarried and without children, she had sold her thankless business and embarked upon what had seemed to be the relationship she'd always dreamed of. When that failed, Amy was shaken and depressed, and for the first time in her life, her blood pressure was elevated. Minus the high maintenance of both the man and running a small business, she cut back to a simple lifestyle in the country, only working a few days a week in a job she could walk to and that made no real demands of her.
This woman knew she was blessed to be able to embark upon a life change experiment that few of us would ever have the opportunity to indulge, but much to her own surprise found that she still felt nervous and stressed over the smallest of things. It was quite a revelation to discover that, with all external influences gone, she had apparently acquired a knee-jerk response to stress out with minimal provocation. She had become highly reactive, and stress had become part of her daily perspective. Amy found that it was her habitual response to triggers, not the actual circumstances of her life, which created the oppressive feelings of being under strain all the time. Once she was able to take personal responsibility for managing her stress, Amy was able to come out of her funk and find happiness again by focusing on the good things in her life, and the positive aspects of the past she left behind. So it is the combination of life experiences, situation forces, and response styles that makes us vulnerable to stress or able to contain or even grow from it.
Good and bad stress
We generally think of stress in a negative way; and people react differently to stress. For instance, a surprise birthday party may cause elation for one person and a panic attack for another. Positively, stress can spur us on to accomplish things – like studying for a test or meeting a deadline; when we’ve completed the task, we feel good. Negatively, when we undergo constant stress on the job – like being bullied by a boss or co-worker, or endure physically unsafe working conditions and then try to resume a normal life after work - like picking up the kids after school, making dinner and doing the laundry - we strain not only our relationships but also our hearts.
When we are stressed out, we don’t usually handle things well. We tend to over-react to situations that under normal circumstances wouldn’t bother us. “The Good Woman” becomes “The Woman from Hell”. She is frustrated, angry and sometimes hostile; in a nice word - moody, in a not-so-nice-word - a “bitch”. "The Nice Guy" can become short-tempered, impatient, and downright mean. This causes us to feel guilty which adds to the stress. As our stress compounds, in time it can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure; and according to Medicinenet.com, clinical studies also link stress to changes in the way our blood clots, which then in turn increases the risk of getting a heart attack.
There is goodness in all of us, even if we’ve temporarily become “The Woman or Man from Hell.” How do we get back to being “The Good Person” –loving, open, compassionate and hopeful? By learning simple self-soothing behaviors that don’t cost us anything but a thought and a little time - like conscious breathing, meditation, or taking a walk. These simple acts, which we control, can counteract the overreaction of heart muscle memory that creates the hypertension wearing out our hearts prematurely and causing them to break down physically. Conscientiousness is the only predictor of longevity. By becoming more conscious of how we react during stressful situations and taking action to calm ourselves when we are stressed out, we can gain the strength we need to carry on. Remembering to offer help to others who can benefit from it, to make others feel special by giving them deserved compliments; these socio-centric deeds counter a tendency toward an ego-centric, "Me" focus.
In our fast-paced world most of us don't always feel like we have time to sit cross-legged on a pillow to meditate for twenty minutes. However, every day there are more tools becoming available to afford the same affect at a fraction of the time. We have a simple, effective solution for you -- like our app AETAS and our new app AETAS 2 Minute Meditations -- which will be available at the iTunes/App Store in May. Our apps help balance our minds and work in about two minutes. Whether self-taught, like your grandmother's trick of taking a deep breath and counting to ten, or a modern self-help app on our devices, people need to find quick measures to calm minds and sooth our souls. And we need to realize the value of giving ourselves these special "time out of time" moments. After all, we can't very well be there for our loved ones if we allow ourselves to succumb to the entangling trappings of stress. And we can't be there for ourselves either when stress rules our roost.
We all want to live out a good life … to our heart's content.
For in depth information about how your life is affected by the mental time zones that you live in, check out our websites: www.timeperspectivetherapy.org, and our books: The Time Cure at www.timecure.com and The Time Paradox at www.timeparadox.com.
Take Charge! Get in touch with the Hero in You! Check out Phil Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project at www.heroicimagination.org.
Images: Rose Sword