It has been estimated that 75 – 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
Chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system that may ultimately manifest in illness. Chronic stress elevates catecholamines and suppressor T cells levels, which suppress the immune system. This suppression raises the risk of infection. Stress increases the risk for diabetes mellitus, as psychological stress alters insulin demands. Stress also affects the acid concentration of the stomach, which can lead to peptic ulcers, or ulcerative colitis. Chronic stress is also correlated to plaque accumulation in the arteries (atherosclerosis), especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle.
Unmanaged chronic stress is so prevalent today that is has morphed into a health epidemic, costing $1 trillion in health care dollars, as estimated by Peter Schnall, author of Unhealthy Work. That’s more expensive than the cost of cancer, smoking, diabetes, and heart disease combined.
The culprit behind so many of today’s health problems is staring us in the face. Yet with such alarming rates of stress, effective treatments to offset the severe impact of this healthcare crisis seem beyond reach. If a provider could discover just one practical tool to address the etiology behind 75-90% of healthcare visits, the positive impact would ring far and wide.
Most of us have been taught that the heart is constantly responding to signals derived by the brain. However, in 1991, the work of J. Andrew Armour, M.D., Ph.D. showed that the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! The heart possesses its own intrinsic nervous system within a larger connected network referred to as the “heart brain.” With over 40,000 neurons, this “little brain” allows the heart to independently sense, process information, make decisions, and even demonstrate a type of learning and memory. The heart has a mind of its own. His findings were so astounding that a new field, Neurocardiology, emerged.
The HeartMath Institute’s research in this area has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity during various emotional states have distinct effects on health. Heart Rate Variability or HRV is thought to be an important indicator of health. Like diurnal cortisol patterns, it is a marker of physiological resilience and behavioral flexibility; it reflects our ability to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands. The normal variability in heart rate is due to the synergistic action of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and serves as a dynamic window into the function and balance of the autonomic nervous system. HRV is greatest in youth, and although the age-related decline in HRV is a natural process, having abnormally low HRV is associated with increased risk of future health problems and premature mortality. Low HRV is also observed in individuals with a wide range of pathologies.
During stress and negative emotional states, the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered or “incoherent” and inhibits higher cognitive functions. The incoherent patterns of physiological activity associated with stressful emotions can cause the body to operate inefficiently, deplete energy, and produce extra wear and tear on the entire system. This is especially true if stress and negative emotions are prolonged or experienced often. In contrast, the more ordered and stable or “coherent” pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states improves cognitive function.
The shift of emotions and sustained emotional positivity is the key element to create heart-brain coherence. By reducing stress-induced wear and tear on the nervous system and facilitating the body’s natural regenerative processes, regular practice of coherence-building techniques can help restore HRV to healthy values. Positive emotions appear to encourage the system at its resonant frequency, enabling coherence to emerge and to be maintained naturally. Eventually, with continuity of specific mindfulness practices, individuals are able to shift into coherence by directly activating a positive emotion on cue.
A HeartMath Institute study examined the effects of an emotional self-management program, consisting of two key techniques, “Cut-Thru" and the "Heart Lock-In." The techniques are designed to eliminate negative thought loops and promote sustained positive emotional states. The experimental group experienced significant increases in the positive affect scales of Caring and Vigor and significant decreases in the negative affect scales of Guilt, Hostility, Burnout, Anxiety and Stress Effects, while no significant changes were seen in the comparison group. There was a mean 23% reduction in salivary cortisol and a 100% increase in salivary DHEA/DHEAS in the experimental group. DHEA was significantly and positively related to the affective state Warmheartedness, whereas cortisol was significantly and positively related to Stress Effects. Increased coherence in heart rate variability patterns was measured in 80% of the experimental group during the use of the techniques.
It appears that the heart is truly an intelligent system and individuals may have greater control over their minds, bodies and health than previously suspected. The heart has been considered the source of emotion, courage and wisdom for centuries. Although there is more to learn, it appears that the age-old associations of the heart may indeed have a scientific basis.