Feelings Are More Than Just Feelings


3 min read

A "type A" personality isn't the only kind that may put you at risk for heart disease. The personality, characterized by constant hurriedness, intense competitiveness and free-floating hostility, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how the mind influences the heart. New research is showing that from hostility to love, the way you feel may play a part in determining the health of your heart.

Hostility is one of several feelings that trigger the release of stress hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones cause your coronary arteries to constrict, and at the same time induce a more rapid and powerful heartbeat. They also increase your blood pressure, the tendency for blood clotting and the levels of sugar and fats in your blood. The net result: an increase in demand on your heart.

In a recent study, Duke Medical School researchers asked 58 patients with myocardial ischemia, a painful condition of insufficient blood flow to the heart, to wear heart monitors for 48 hours. The patients were instructed to keep a diary of emotions -- tension, sadness, frustration, happiness and feeling in control -- during the period.

Strengthening the view that stress reduces blood flow to the heart, the researchers found that patients who had stressful feelings were twice as likely to have a bout of ischemic pain an hour later as patients who didn't have stressful feelings.

Being depressed doesn't help either. In a long-term study of 1,200 male medical students, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that those experiencing depression were, on average, twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease or suffer a heart attack 15 years later.

Other research studies examining the effects of depression in people who already have heart disease found that these people are up to eight times more likely to develop ventricular tachycardia (abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms) than their peers who are not depressed.

The effect of positive-feeling states on the heart is a subject of growing research interest. Love and appreciation have been the focus of experiments at the Institute of HeartMath (cq) in Boulder Creek, Calif. Researchers found that these feelings actually alter the beating pattern of the heart, making it more coherent.

Normally, heartbeat patterns tend to be irregular. But with feelings of love and appreciation, the pattern becomes dramatically more uniform and consistent. At the same time, the nervous system comes into a state of greater balance and harmony and even emits a calming effect on the brain waves, making them more coherent too. The subject of mental states' effect on the heart may be coming to the forefront, as one nonprofit organization is granting millions of dollars in research money to examine the phenomenon. Led by co-chairs former President Jimmy Carter and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Richmond, VA.-based Templeton Forgiveness Research Campaign is currently funding research exploring the physiological effects of forgiveness on heart health, as well as on mental health, family conflict and racial tension.

While it's impossible to eliminate stress from your life, you can calm and nourish your heart by regularly meditating or praying. These activities produce the "relaxation response" -- a physiological state that is exactly the opposite of stress -- reducing blood pressure and increasing blood flow to the heart. Many forms of meditation and prayer can naturally incorporate feelings of love, appreciation and forgiveness. For example, some traditional Buddhists practice "loving-kindness meditation," during which they focus their attention on the heart and generate feelings of loving kindness for others and themselves. A form of such "intentional heart focus" has been found by the HeartMath researchers to create greater coherence in the heart in as little as one minute.

To experience the benefits of "intentional heart focus," try the following next time you're feeling stressed:

  • Take a break and mentally disengage from the situation.
  • Bring your attention to the area of your heart.
  • Recall an experience with a loved one in which you felt happiness, love or appreciation.
  • Re-experience these feelings while keeping your attention on your heart. Let your breathing be relaxed and regular.