Early in my career, as part of my effort to understand how our emotions affect heart health, I trained as a psychotherapist. I discovered then that our heart is indeed much more than a pump.
We all know the sayings, “you touched my heart,” “you stole my heart,” and “my heart is broken.” The heart is the only organ in the body that carries such emotionally charged meaning. But more importantly, these sayings are not simply images; they can describe real, physical, medical events in the heart. The “heavy heart” that comes with sadness, for example, can actually lead to chest pain.
Our emotions and our stresses are far bigger risk factors for heart disease than we acknowledge them to be. When stressed, the body floods itself with the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, an overdose of these hormones can lead to symptoms such as heart palpitations, ulcers, stroke, or heart attack. So, although we may tell ourselves that we are not as upset as we think we are, our emotions show themselves in other ways.
Simply put, the body never lies. Do not neglect the emotional risk factors for heart disease. How can you reduce such stressors? Here are 15 ways to keep emotions from putting your heart at risk.
- Explore Your Anger. Anger is the Achilles’ heel of the cardiovascular system—a trigger for serious problems, including a heart attack. Your blood vessels constrict and your blood pressure rises. The electrical currents to your heart become unstable. And if you have arterial plaque, anger is like throwing a match into a can of gasoline. The plaque can rupture, and the resulting clots can kill you.
One of the best ways to keep anger from becoming a risk factor for heart disease is to release it. Find a place of solitude and scream, yell, or cry. Talk to a friend or visit a skilled psychotherapist to work on your anger. Or, try twisting towels, hitting tennis balls, or punching pillows. It also helps to ask yourself why you feel angry. Recognize that you cannot be effective when you are possessed by anger. If you understand why you’re coming to such an emotional point, you’ll be better able to identify and avoid those triggers.
- Harness the Power of a Good Cry. If you’re wondering how to reduce stress, don’t dismiss the power of crying. Crying not only discharges the effects of sadness and anger from our bodies, but the tears themselves also contain toxins and stress hormones that then get excreted from the body when we cry. In addition, crying stimulates the production of endorphins, which are our body’s natural pain-killer and “feel-good” hormones that can help to lower stress levels. Plus, sobbing enhances healthy breathing. These are just some of the reasons why we feel relieved after a good cry.
- Try Mental Imaging. The relationship between mental imagery, relaxation, physiological responses, and behavior has been documented in many scientific studies. A technique called relaxation with guided imaging (RGI), for example, has been shown to lower symptoms of rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, and jaw clenching.
To do this in your daily life, simply imagine that you are experiencing something, and allow your body to react as if the event you’re imagining is actually happening. I like to concentrate on a past moment of intense joy. When faced with a stressful moment, visualize a time when you felt out-of-this-world happy. This could be the birth of a child, an engagement or marriage, or being recognized for an accomplishment. The key is to choose an event that brings up positive feelings. Then put yourself back in that moment—feel it, smell it, taste it, and live it all over again. The positive emotions you feel will effectively cancel out the negative ones, making mental imaging a powerful way to reduce stress—a critical risk factor for heart disease.
- Listen to “Healing Music.” The melody, pitch, timing, and beat of certain types of music—particularly classical and baroque (including “Pachelbel’s Canon” and “Chant” by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos)—can quiet your mind and reduce stress.
The connection is simple: Most scores of classical music range between 60 and 140 beats per minute. The resting heart beats approximately 50 to 80 times per minute—so it would appear that soothing scores in this range induce calm. For relaxation, and to reduce your risk factors for heart disease, try listening to the following pieces of music:
• Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, second movement
• Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2, Sarabande
• Holst: The Planets Suite, “Venus”
• Ravel: Mother Goose Suite, first movement
The healing power of music also comes from its ability to stimulate the right side of the brain, which thinks in images. I believe this creative, intuitive part of the brain needs to be exercised if healing is to truly take place.
- Harness the Healing Power of Reiki. This ancient energy therapy (pronounced “ray-key”) is based on the belief that universal life energy is present in all beings, and that the energy field unique to each individual permeates the body and extends outward by several inches, in what is called an “aura.”
In a Reiki session, a trained practitioner places his or her hands near the body to engage this energy field. Clients remain fully clothed, in a reclining or seated position. The practitioner carefully moves his or her hands over different parts of the client’s body to concentrate the flow of energy in various areas. This movement of energy can promote general well-being, address specific emotional states, and help to mitigate the emotional risk factors for heart disease.
- Practice Yoga. When practiced regularly and on a long-term basis, yoga can help lower blood pressure and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Studies of hypertensive adults with and without coronary disease have shown that yoga-based interventions can reduce the need for medication. Yoga also does not require an enormous time commitment: Just 30 minutes of yoga daily has been shown to decrease blood pressure.
- Engage in Tai Chi. If you’re wondering how to reduce stress, tai chi is one of the most powerful methods you can try. Sometimes called “meditation in motion,” tai chi is a series of postures and movements performed slowly and gracefully. Plus, it utilizes breathing techniques that induce a state of relaxation and tranquility.
If done regularly, tai chi can help to reduce important risk factors for heart disease. In one study of 76 healthy people who had high-normal blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension, tai chi was shown to decrease blood pressure and anxiety after the participants had practiced it for 50 minutes, three times a week for 12 weeks.
- Get a Massage. This form of bodywork helps people decrease their heart rate, blood pressure, and stress—eliminating three risk factors for heart disease. Research confirms the many benefits of massage, including simple stress relief, release of endorphins (which offset pain), and enhanced immune function.
- Practice Meditation. Simple meditation can offset the chronic release of cortisol. To meditate, close your eyes and say a phrase that has meaning to you silently while you exhale. If a stray thought comes into your mind while you meditate, don’t try to force it out. Instead, gently bring your focus back to your phrase. To reduce stress, use this technique for 10–15 minutes, once or twice daily, or as needed.
You can also try Transcendental Meditation (TM). A friend of mine started practicing TM 30 years ago after developing work-related high blood pressure. Within a month, his pressure had normalized. Thirty years later, he still meditates regularly and his blood pressure is a youthful 120/60. Dozens of published studies have shown that TM has a powerful effect on the heart and overall health, reducing your risk factors for heart disease. TM has also been found to significantly improve heart rate variability as well.
- Engage in Prayer. Spiritual practices lower stress—no doubt about it. In a conference at Harvard Medical School, research was cited showing that people who attend church frequently or pray regularly, have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, and suicide. When you include prayer in your daily life, you may become more open to life, less rigid, and more centered. Plus, you may find it easier to resolve your problems and cope with stressful situations.
- Learn to Say “No.” Always accommodating others is a wonderful trait; however, we can easily become overwhelmed and fatigued in the process. Say “no” when confronted by a request you think will probably be too stressful or time-consuming. You can’t always please everybody. Moreover, no one will respect you unless you respect yourself and your personal time.
- Spend Time with Pets. Research confirms what you’ve probably known all along: Animals—especially those with which you’ve had a long-term relationship—can be good for your health! The survival rate of people who suffer a heart attack has been found to be four times greater among those who leave the hospital and go home to a loving pet than those who go home to an empty house or a judgmental spouse.
One lesson we can learn from animals is that they are a lot smarter than people when it comes to stress. They know when to walk away from a potentially hopeless situation that threatens their well-being. For example, when things are looking bleak, cats just turn around, shake it off, and walk away to a secluded spot. They have an innate ability to tune out the environment and to become aloof in intolerable situations. On a similar note, they’re not afraid to say “no,” walking away when they can’t handle additional stimulation.
- Laugh. Children laugh an average of 400 times a day; adults, only 15. Somewhere on the way to adulthood, we lose the ability to laugh 385 times a day. To reduced stress and lower your heart risks, up your laughter quotient with comedy videos or playing with your grandkids. In one study that lasted more than a year, cardiac patients who watched a comedy show on a daily basis had significantly lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure readings, and they needed less medication.
- Play. This one may seem odd, but one of the most dismaying things I’ve discovered over years of medical practice is that adults no longer know how to play. When I ask my patients how they play, they often look at me with a blank expression. Or they say that they play golf or tennis. But sports activities are not really play. Sports can be enjoyable, but they’re not truly healing because they involve performance, competition, and the need to win. True play is spontaneous, has no set agenda or rules, nor even a desired outcome. When we play, we become totally free. Absorbed in the moment, we are taken out of our heads and into our bodies.
To reduce stress and lower your heart risks, get back in touch with the playful part of yourself by observing children and seeing what they do. Even better, play with a child and let him or her set the tone. Try swinging on a swing, blowing bubbles, finger painting, or playing catch.
- Finally, Ask Yourself One Question. When you feel your stress level rising, ask yourself, “Is this worth dying for?” I can assure you, it’s not.