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The Heartfelt Life

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New in the medical profession thought about the connection between emotion and heart disease until recently. There was no mention of heart function and relationships with ourselves, our loved ones or the world around us.

New in the medical profession thought about the connection between emotion and heart disease until recently. There was no mention of heart function and relationships with ourselves, our loved ones or the world around us. Yet the heart is our most powerful organ, according to Paul Pearsall, author of The Heart's Code: Tapping the Energy and Power of Our Heart Energy (Broadway, 1999). It is the body's primary organizing force. It responds to the environment and is encoded in all the cells of the body. Simply, the heart speaks and sends information.

"The heart has its own form of wisdom, different from that of the rational brain," writes Pearsall. This is why, for example, heart-transplant patients may experience memories, feelings and expressions of the previous heart owner. Pearsall recounts the story of an eight-year-old girl who received the heart of a murdered 10-year-old girl. The heart recipient began having nightmares about the man who had murdered her donor. The young girl said she knew who the murderer was. Her mother brought her to a psychiatrist who believed the girl and called the police. Based on her detailed descriptions, the police finally found the murderer.

Depression and the Heart

Not too many cardiologists inquire about your sense of connection with your environment, but maybe they should. Emotions play a crucial role in heart health. Feeling downhearted or depressed is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. In his research, heart expert Dr. Dean Ornish has found that those with heart disease feel a sense of alienation or separation from their world. Many studies have also shown that depression increases the risk of heart disease in both sexes. According to cardiologist and author Steven Sinatra, "Not only does depression make you vulnerable to heart disease, but research shows that patients who suffer from prolonged depression after a heart attack or heart surgery are five times more likely to die from a cardiac event in the ensuing year. Being ill can cause a person to feel 'down' in the first place, and many of the drugs prescribed for heart disease are known to cause depression."

Cognitive Therapy for Depression

One way to stay heart healthy, then, is to stay connected and avoid depressive states through a variety of means. One of these, cognitive therapy, is a well-researched method of psychological treatment that can be effective for dealing with emotional and behavioural problems. More than a dozen double-blind studies have shown that cognitive therapy works as well as antidepressant drugs for moderate depression but with two important differences: there is a lower rate of reoccurrence with cognitive therapy, and of course, there are no negative side-effects.

In cognitive therapy, you change the self-limiting beliefs that lead to emotional stress reactions. According to Dr. David Burns, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, 10 basic forms of "twisted thinking" cause much of our emotional distress and can be altered with practice.

These unhealthy thinking patterns include:

  • You see things in black and white categories.
  • You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as "always" or "never".
  • You reject positive experiences by insisting that they don't count.
  • You tell yourself things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be.
  • You label yourself (e.g.: I'm a loser), which is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking.
  • You blow things out of proportion or shrink.
    their importance.
  • You expect yourself or others to be perfect or fair.
  • You hold yourself personally responsible for an event.
    that isn't entirely under your control.
  • You blame other people for your problems.

All these faulty ways of thinking and the resultant emotions can be changed, which can have a tremendous effect on your mental, and in turn, physical health. Anyone can learn cognitive therapy with dedication and time. One good book on this subject is Dr. Burns' The Feeling Good Again Handbook (Plume, 1990).

Changing your Heart's Rhythms

Other researchers are examining the relationship between the heart and the brain. The Institute of HeartMath (heartmath.org) is a non-profit research and education organization whose mission is "to study the physiological mechanisms by which the heart communicates with the brain, and the heart's influence on information processing, perception, emotion and health." HeartMath scientists have found that negative emotions throw the nervous system out of balance and create jagged heart rhythms. Positive emotions, by contrast, write Doc Childre and Howard Smith in The HeartMath Solution (Harper, 2000), increase order and balance in the nervous system and produce smooth, harmonious heart rhythms.

At the Institute of HeartMath, participants are taught how to change their heart waves into a favourable form through books, tapes, videos and consultations. One of their techniques, known as "freeze frame," is described in detail in the book of the same name by Doc Childre (Freeze-Frame: One Minute Stress Management, Planetary Publications, 1998). The basic technique consists of recognizing a stressful emotion at any given moment and freeze-framing it by taking a "time-out." Then you shift your mind or emotions to the area around your heart for 10 seconds or more. Next, recall a positive or fun experience. Then ask your heart what would be a more efficient or optimal response to the situation you are experiencing. And finally, there are techniques in the book that teach you how to listen to the heart's answer.

In the end, following our heart's wisdom may be the most important key to both prevention and treatment of heart disease.

Recommended Resources

Institute of HeartMath, 14700 West Park Ave., Boulder Creek, CA, 95006. Phone: 831-338-8500. Fax: 831-338-8504. Web: heartmath.org, or hearthmath.com.
E-mail: info@heartmath.org.

National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (NACBT), P.O. Box 2195, Weirton, WV, 26062. Phone: 304-723-3982. Fax: 304-723-3982. Web: nacbt.org.
E-mail: nacbt@nacbt.org.

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