The Heart of Happiness by Dr. David Johnson, MD, FACC
n today’s world there is no shortage of stress and loneliness. Saddled with economic pressures to produce and earn income while supporting an ailing economic model has disrupted both family and community. Additionally, growing socioeconomic inequality has created greater strains on social dynamics resulting in an explosion of negative emotions including hopelessness and despair as the American dream becomes harder to obtain. Unfortunately, chronic stress, loneliness and despair have adverse effects on heart health, leading to heart attacks and a newly recognized syndrome referred to as the broken heart syndrome. As unpleasant as these negative emotions may be there are opportunities to reclaim individual power and transform these negatives into positive emotions that are associated improved health and vitality. As a cardiologist, I have focused much of my attention on the mechanical properties of the heart however, the heart is much more. It has biomechanical properties that pump oxygen and nutrients through 60,000 miles of blood vessels to nourish the body. Additionally, it is an endocrine organ that secretes several hormones including the “love” hormone, oxytocin, which scientists have not yet identified a function but believe may improve how the body responds to stress causing less wear and tear on the body. A third property is its self-contained nervous system that allows it to pump on its own making heart transplantations possible. Finally, there is an electromagnetic, or energetic, aspect of the heart, which is able to regulate other systems in the body including the immune system, the endocrine system and even the brain.
West Michigan Edition
Pioneering work by the HeartMath Institute has demonstrated the role of the heart in emotional self-regulation and they are now exploring the role in how the heart influences relationships, both at an individual as well as social level. Through a process called coherence, the heart is able to electromagnetically entrain other systems to function in harmonious frequency, which aligns with a strong naturally occurring frequency existing in the natural world. Coherence is associated with the feeling of appreciation, gratitude and love. So, what does this have to do with happiness and the heart? Most of us have been aware that the heart is the seat of emotions that has been passed down to us through the generations. In traditional Chinese medicine the heart is the master of all organs, the seat of the soul, and contains emotion and joy. Practices that allow individuals to feel their heart and sense the power of their heart begin to open the channels of joy and happiness. In a culture that has been misled to believe that happiness comes from objects outside of one’s self, this paradigm often seems too simple and perhaps too esoteric to embrace. Fortunately, science through the research of the HeartMath Institute and many others is beginning to validate the regulatory power of heart awareness on wellbeing. To better understand this concept, read through the following steps then repeat the practice on your own with your eyes closed. 1. Begin with your eyes closed. 2. Sense what is happening in your body including your thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Try not to judge yourself or your thoughts, beliefs,
feelings or emotions. 3. Bring your attention into the area in the center of your chest; this is your heart space. 4. Now try to become aware of the breath as it enters and leaves this heart space. Slow your breathing down to a mental count of 5. Breathe easily and without effort. 5. Bring to mind a positive feeling. Something that made you feel good. Try to bring in a sense of appreciation, gratitude and/or love. Hold onto this sense of appreciation for a few minutes. If your mind wonders just return to your heart and this sense. 6. Gently release to image of appreciation, gratitude and/or love. 7. Sense what is happening in your body. What is your experience? The above is a modification of the Quick Coherence technique developed by the HeartMath Institute, which has been shown to help individuals restore a greater sense of happiness by tapping into the power of the heart. Coherence results in improvements in emotional regulation, stress hormone production and autonomic nervous system activation. The end result is the ability to allow creative solutions to emerge that benefit us individually and collectively. Practicing the technique daily will begin to open the heart allowing for greater appreciation for life experience while illuminating our being with joy and happiness. Learning to find beauty in the experiences of life, even when they are unpleasant, is the key to opening the heart and minimizing the impact of negative emotions on our health and wellbeing. So, if loneliness and despair are the result of closing our heart and our illuminated body, then opening the heart is essential to reclaim the life we have been gifted and the talents that are needed by our community in order to thrive. After all, happiness is truly the result of our ability to connect, create and thrive in the world in which we live. Impact Health: Integrative Medicine and Preventive Cardiology is located in Grand Rapids. For more information, visit DaveJohnsonMD.com or call (616) 928-0668. See ad page 30. David Johnson, MD, FACC can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.