There is a strong psychological component to heart health. Many cultures, past and present, have considered the heart – not the mind – to be the center of our being. The ancient Greek believed that illness befalls the body when disorder occurs in the heart. When the heart is sick, every part of us suffers.
Western medicine is primarily focused on treating the physical causes of heart disease. Weight problems, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, clogged arteries, etc. can indeed damage the heart, but so can stress, depression and sleep deprivation.
There Is a Strong Psychological Component to Heart Health
That Is Not Always Well Understood by Doctors and Patients
We actually refer often to the heart as something more than just one of the organs in our body. For instance, we say that someone who experienced a great loss has a “broken heart,” or that a kind person has a “heart of gold,” or that somebody who shows emotions “wears his heart on his sleeve.” We would not speak in such terms about the liver or the kidneys. The heart is special.
Physical and emotional health both decline when we are anxious, unhappy, stressed out or conflicted. Chronic stress is well known as a leading contributor to heart disease. Negative emotions cause many people to reach for numbing substances, like alcohol and drugs, which can generate additional health problems over time. Eating disorders are in large parts connected to emotional dysfunctions.
The notion that our thoughts and attitudes can affect the world outside of us is as old as mankind itself. Blessings and curses have been bestowed throughout the ages to influence the outcome of events. The healing power of prayer, meditation or visualization is widely believed in and practiced around the globe, including by members of the medical community.
Unfortunately, “positive thinking” as a potentially powerful instrument for healing and recovery has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted. When Norman Cousins wrote Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (1979), in which he credits humor and laughter for his unexpected recovery from a life-threatening illness, it was dismissed by many as a purely personal interpretation of coincidental events.
Advocates for the power of positive thinking, like Mr. Cousins, do not suggest that sick people can “miraculously” heal themselves by virtue of their thought processes but rather that their emotions contribute, for better or worse, to their recovery process.
A good example is the immune system. We know that suffering from chronic stress has the potential to weaken our natural defenses and make us more vulnerable to diseases. There is no compelling reason to think that these natural forces in us cannot be used to our advantage as well. In other words, if negative emotions can make us ill, positive ones, one would imagine, can do us some good.
Meditation and visualization
Like with positive thinking, the purpose of meditation and visualization is not always self-evident for those who don’t practice them. Religious and spiritual overtones aside, meditation is all about calming one’s mind as well as one’s body. Some call it simply “mindful relaxation.” This is not the same as doing nothing. On the contrary. It can take great discipline and determination to become proficient in the art of meditation. Forcing oneself to slow down, becoming quiet and keeping the mind from racing can be a challenging task for beginners. Some folks work on it for most of their lives.
If meditation turns us inward, “visualization” opens us up to new opportunities and possibilities. This is not to be confused with wishful thinking or idle daydreaming. It is how artists, architects and inventors work. Visualization encourages us to use our imagination, which even Albert Einstein considered as more important than knowledge.
By slowing down, becoming still, listening and visualizing our fullest potential, we may find a renewed sense of hope, purpose and balance that can heal and regenerate us in ways other medical measures cannot.
Regular physical exercise
Regular exercise is a must for anyone interested in practicing a healthy lifestyle, but it is especially important for heart patients. The kind of exercising you choose doesn’t matter as much as doing it with regularity. If you are too busy to go to a gym for a workout, you can find other opportunities throughout the day to flex your muscles here and there – e.g. by walking around the block during lunch hours or by taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If you have had little or no exercise in a while, start slowly and consult with your physician before you get going.
For too long, stress has been treated exclusively as a mental or psychological issue without much understanding of its destructive effects on our physical health. Unmanaged stress can be dangerously harmful for both body and mind, potentially resulting in disease and even death.
Not all stress is necessarily unhealthy. There is such a thing as “positive stress,” which can have an empowering and invigorating effect – for some time. Stress can become dangerously harmful, however, if it persists without relief. So-called “chronic stress” is known as one of the leading causes of heart disease today.
The serious effects of stress on the heart are not sufficiently understood by heart disease patients or their physicians. Effective stress management and consulting should be routinely included in clinical heart disease treatment and preventive measures.
The importance of rest and sleep
Like chronic stress, long-term sleep deprivation is a growing concern in connection with heart disease. Most Americans do not get enough rest and sleep, and many accumulate considerable sleep deficits over days and weeks. This cannot remain without consequences.
Rest is not a luxury item we can do without. During sleep, the body heals and recuperates from the wear and tear of the day. If the nightly recovery process is prevented from taking place for too long, the damages will manifest and eventually develop into serious health conditions.
Good health is dependent on many contributing factors, all of which must be nurtured and attended to from time to time. One of them is the quality of our social life. Most people count close and loving relationships among the most important priorities in their lives.
Loneliness and isolation, on the other hand, produce stress, anxiety and fear. This is especially hard for older people who no longer can participate fully in the life of their social surroundings. Seniors who have lost touch with family and friends and find themselves confined to their homes or retirement institutions often suffer greatly from a sense of abandonment. Many divorcees and unemployed workers don’t fare much better.
Strong ties with family and friends are routinely associated with good health and healthy aging. Studies have shown that pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and slower heart rates while they interact with their animals. Researchers believe that positive emotions thrive best in a functional, supportive environment, which promotes many other health effects as well, like strengthening of the immune system to reduce the risk of diseases.