Exploring the well-being of emotions and environment
Deena Kara Shaffer
Indeed, for too long in the Western scientific community, matters of the heart were kept separate from our physiological health. But, there’s an increasing awareness—one that many cultures have known all along—that how we feel directly affects all markers of physical health, and that our environments, including our upbringing, also impact our emotional and bodily health. Which is to say, it really is all connected.
“It is now well documented and generally accepted that human emotions interact with the mind and body in complex and powerful ways that impact our health.”
“I believe it is important for one to realize that our thoughts and emotions, which are heavily connected, can impact our heart,” explains Ashlene Crichlow, registered provisional psychologist, creator of @blacktherapistofcanada Instagram platform, and member of the Alberta Black Therapists Network.
And this interlinked impact, Crichlow points out, can result in, for example, emotions that elevate stress or emotions that lead to substance misuse and risky behaviours. Whether directly or indirectly, Crichlow says that our thoughts and feelings affect all areas of our lives.
But how do emotions affect our heart physically? Naturopathic doctor Caroline Meyer, who divides her time between Northstar Naturopathic in Toronto and the Thunder Bay Naturopathic Clinic, and supervises a paediatrics-focused clinic at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, says that “when the heart is in a state of coherence, its rhythm regulates and blood pressure lowers. In states of anxiety, worry, and anger, the heart becomes dysregulated, putting excess strain on this organ.”
Research reported in Advances in Physiology Education concluded that “human emotions, such as anxiety, depression, fear, joy, and laughter, profoundly impact psychological and physiological processes.”
How we feel influences disease prevention, injury recovery, and longevity, and the specifics of this increasingly integrative science are compelling. Our feelings, thoughts, and somatic experiences are woven together in an interlinking, intercommunicating network.
And, research presented in The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organization Behavior shows that our mind-heart-body system affects our immune system and overall well-being.” High positive emotions promote healthy BMI and blood pressure, whereas low positive emotions increase the risk of heart disease.
“Of course, we have all experienced grief, heartache, sadness, anger, and fear,” affirms Meyer. “These emotional states, although temporary, can create psychological patterns that persist,” she adds, and, in turn, we might need to shift our behaviour.
Meyer gives the example of learning to avoid a triggering situation, or insisting on space from a person who reminds us of the reasons we might be feeling a hard-to-handle emotion. Meyer explains that, while it might seem counterintuitive, it’s important to attend to difficult or even destructive emotions, rather than try to push them away.
“What emotions we push away,” says Meyer, “only become stronger. As much as possible, when worry or anger or despair emerge, shine a steady, curious attitude toward them. You’ll often be surprised at the insights you gain about the reasons underlying strong emotions.”
It’s crucial to remember that environment, upbringing, and culture play a significant role in how one sees and interacts with the world. When these are in balance, this will make optimism and secure attachment likelier.
Crichlow says, “When an individual has experienced adversity, disconnect, or trauma, they might have a more pessimistic viewpoint and struggle with cognitive distortions that could negatively impact their overall well-being.”
Meyer adds that evidence indicates our environment directly impacts gene expression, and, in turn, genetics are involved in our response to stressors and triggers.
Meyer encourages each one of us to support our well-being by remaining open and curious in our moment-to-moment awareness. In this way, we can listen with more than just our ears, but with our hearts as well, and in so doing we can hear what Meyer describes as “the whispers and messages of our emotions and bodies.
“This is the key to balance and to health,” she says. “I recommend to all of my patients to check in with their heart, their emotional centre, several times per day. Ask ‘How am I feeling?’ and ‘What do I need in this moment, heart?’ to cultivate a curious, loving relationship with our hearts and bodies even, or especially, if our minds are screaming.”
And should our emotions overwhelm our hearts and minds, Crichlow emphasizes the importance of both carving out time for joyful habits and pastimes as well as connecting with a “trusted mental health professional who can work on things like boundaries, coping, and acceptance that can contribute to one’s level of life satisfaction.”
Naturopathic doctor Caroline Meyer explains that the foundation of healthy daily habits of eating local unprocessed foods, moving your body, engaging in play, socially connecting, and adequately resting and sleeping will support not only physical health but also mental-emotional and spiritual health. It’s really simple, but often challenging to do in our distracted, hyper-informed culture. Genuine social connection is one habit that people often miss, but research shows it is crucial to heart health.
Ashlene Crichlow, registered provisional psychologist, believes that the best way one can better manage their health in hopes of gaining more enjoyment out of their lives is to begin including self-care and therapy into their journey. While each individual is complex and unique, living with destructive emotions can be difficult. She suggests reaching out to a local therapist to learn more about how to create a comprehensive, specific, and personal care plan.