Just as love often gets reduced to a trite Hallmark Greeting card, teachings about the heart diminish its function to a vessel that pumps blood around the body. Don't get me wrong, the capacity of the heart to beat 100,000 times a day, and distribute 2,000 gallons of blood daily, through 60,000 miles of blood vessels, to provide nourishment to every cell in the body and carry away its waste, is astonishing. While we Westerners tend to worship the power of the brain, the ancient Egyptians recognized the heart as the source of wisdom, intuition and emotions. Research at the Heartmath Institute is validating this ancient wisdom. Amazingly, some of the secrets to healing diseases we associate with the brain, may actually lie hidden in the heart.
Perhaps the persuasive thoughts in our heads have misguided us into overvaluing the power of our heads and thoughts, at the expense of the even more powerful and insightful heart. The heart's electromagnetic field is 5000 times more powerful than the brain. It's electrical energy can be measured up to eight feet away from the body. As we interact with others, and the environment around us, the heart senses information and conveys it to the brain and body via hormones, pulse waves and the rhythm of its beats. Some research even suggests that the heart becomes aware of the emotional tone of an event before it actually happens! Far more information moves from the heart to the head than the other way around.
Just like poetry, art and music, the heart speaks the language of emotions, translating its messages to the body via changing rhythms of the heart. Our heart both responds to our emotions and has the capacity to transform them. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed, our heart's rhythm becomes jagged and chaotic forming angry, sharp-toothed waves (see image above) that spread a message of alarm. The primitive, emotional parts of the brain respond by increasing the release of cortisol and other stress hormones that can help us fight, flee or freeze. In the process, our frontal lobe gets hijacked, and we lose the ability to step back and see a bigger picture with more perspective and clarity. This is evolutionarily advantageous in life-threatening situations, as there is no time for analyzing a situation when being attacked by a tiger or stranger. Yet for most of us, most of the time, our stressors are not threatening our very existence, but created by regrets about the past or fears about the future. Instead of fleeing from the claws of a bear, we stress about not having enough time to finish everything we need to get done at work or at home; stewing over an argument with a spouse, parent, child or friend; worrying about what might happen to our children ten years from now if they keep eating only chicken nuggets and french fries; misinterpreting a tweet or emoji; or believing the world as we know it will end because of the latest political shenanigans going on in Washington and elsewhere in the world. None of these stressors will actually kill us (not immediately anyways!), unless we continue to stress about our stress, and all the things we cannot control or that will never even happen. This stress cycle causes wear and tear on the body, which leads to chronic disease. The American Medical Association estimates that 80 to 90 percent of all chronic disease has its roots in this overactive stress response.
On the flip side, the emotions of appreciation, gratitude and love create a powerful, smooth wave and rhythm (see image above) that sends a message of safety throughout the body, aligning the systems of the body to the unified beat of the heart. Because of the heart's powerful electromagnetic energy, once in a state of coherence, the heart can pull respiration, blood pressure, brain waves, hormones, digestion and immunity into a synchronized harmony of balance and order. In this state we not only feel calmer and think more clearly, but our body has time and space to stop focusing on putting out the real and imagined small fires of daily life, and focus instead on healing and balance.
Heart rate variability (HRV) provides a window through which we can assess the state of our heart and emotional resilience. HRV measures the beat to beat variation between heart beats. A healthy heart, like a flexible body, is responsive and adaptable to change. Research has shown that increased rigidity and loss of flexibility is a marker of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and other chronic diseases—all states associated with a decreased ability to adapt to stressors and change. More severe symptoms are associated with worsening HRV. Some research suggests the antidepressants commonly prescribed to treat depression, may actually decrease the HRV further, potentiating the imbalance of the autonomic nervous system that lies at the core of the problem. The good news is that our heart and our brains are incredibly malleable. By learning how to create a state of coherence within our own hearts, we can foster greater emotional stability and resilience, regardless of age and life circumstances. This helps balance the autonomic nervous system, so instead of perpetually fueling an overactive sympathetic system we can amp up the parasympathetic system, creating a calmer and more stable brain and body.
So how can we do this? Many tools have been found to increase our HRV, including meditation, deep breathing, Heartmath, yoga, and exercise. Omega-3 fish oil and theanine, the amino acid in green tea, have also been shown to increase HRV. One simple Heartmath technique, that can improve HRV and create a state of coherence, is to imagine breathing in and out of the heart center. As you do this, bring to mind something or someone for whom you feel deep appreciation, gratitude or love, and breathe that feeling into the heart. For myself, I find that trying to think too hard about something or someone for whom I am grateful pulls me back into my head, so I find it more effective to simply focus on the warmth and energy in my heart center and the beating of my heart. As I do this, I imagine a smile spreading across my forehead, eyes and mouth. Using a Heartmath biofeedback tool is helpful as you can gain instant feedback as to what works and what doesn't, and witness your variability improving with practice. Practicing this skill increases our capacity to navigate the daily stressors of life, so that we are less easily hijacked by events around us. Tuning in regularly with the heart helps us to recognize the different vocabularies of the heart and the brain, so we are less likely to get duped by the urgency of the thoughts in our heads. While the brain speaks insistently, incessantly and often judgmentally, the heart's voice feels more like a whisper and deep knowing. The brain often sounds like a whiny two-year old that sees herself as the center of the universe, while the heart sounds like the wise, intuitive grandmother who wraps you in her arms without questions or advice, just unconditional love and support. As we let go of the brain's thoughts and checklists, blames and judgments, we arrive at a quiet intuitive place of knowing.
So perhaps for Valentine's day this year, instead of a card and chocolate, you can offer yourself and your loved ones a gift for the heart—a walk through a park, or a yoga class, followed by green tea and time to check in with the wisdom of your heart center. Better yet, commit to offering these heart gifts to yourself daily, so that you can increase your heart's resiliency and health. The gifts of the heart proliferate. By increasing our own coherence we boost the coherence of our family, friends, pets, and even environment around us. We are all connected by the powerful electromagnetic energy of the heart. As more of us take time to shift our coherence to improve our own mood, health and well-being, we have the power to shift the coherence of the planet. How's that for a powerful Valentine's day gift? Chocolate covered strawberries are still welcome as a source of appreciation and gratitude!