Psychologists once maintained that emotions were purely mental expressions generated by the brain alone. We now know that this is not true — emotions have as much to do with the heart and body as they do with the brain. Of the body’s organs, the heart plays a particularly important role in our emotional experience. The experience of an emotion results from the brain, heart, and body acting in concert.
The HeartMath Institute, a Central California research center dedicated to the study of the heart and the physiology of emotions, has conducted numerous studies identifying the relationship between emotions and the heart. A number of their studies have provided new insight into understanding how the activity of the heart is indeed linked to our emotions and our health, vitality and well-being.
Emotions and the Heart
HeartMath studies have defined a critical link between the heart and brain. The heart is in a constant two-way dialogue with the brain — our emotions change the signals between the heart and brain in complex ways. The heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. And the brain responds to the heart in many important ways. This research explains how the heart responds to emotional and mental reactions and why certain emotions stress the body and drain our energy.
As we experience feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity, our heart rhythm patterns become more erratic. These erratic patterns are sent to the emotional centers in the brain which it recognizes as negative or stressful feelings. These signals create the actual feelings we experience in heart area and body. The erratic heart rhythms also block our ability to think clearly.
Many studies have found that the risk of developing heart disease is significantly increased for people who experience frequent stress. Stress is an umbrella term that embraces emotions such as irritation, anger or frustration, judgement, guilt and depression. These emotions create a chain reaction in the body — stress hormone levels increase, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and the immune system is weakened. If we consistently experience these emotions, it can put a strain on the heart and other organs, and eventually lead to serious health problems.
Conversely, research shows that when we experience heartfelt emotions like love, care, appreciation and compassion the heart produces a smooth pattern that looks like gently rolling hills. Harmonious heart rhythms, which reflect positive emotions, are considered to be indicators of cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. This lets the brain know that the heart feels good and often creates a gentle warm feeling in the area of the heart.
Learning to shift out of stressful emotional reactions to these heartfelt emotions can have profound positive effects on the cardiovascular system and our overall health. It is easy to see how our heart and emotions are linked and how we can shift our heart into a more efficient state by monitoring its rhythms. A simple and effective tool to link your heart and brain is called heart-mind coherence.
Being Appreciative Has Benefits
The feeling of appreciation is one of the most concrete and easiest positive emotion for individuals to self-generate and sustain for longer periods. Almost anyone can find something to genuinely appreciate. By simply recalling a time when you felt sincere appreciation and recreating that feeling, you can increase your heart rhythm coherence, reduce emotional stress and improve your health.
For people who may initially find it difficult to self-generate a feeling of appreciation in the present moment, experts suggest that they recall a past memory that elicits warm feelings. With practice, most people are able to self-generate feelings of appreciation in real time and no longer need the past time reference. Rollin McCraty, Director of Research for the HeartMath Institute, says, “It’s important to emphasize that it is not a mental image of a memory that creates a shift in our heart rhythm, but rather the emotions associated with the memory. Mental images alone usually do not produce the same significant results that we’ve observed when someone focuses on a positive feeling.”
Positive emotion-focused techniques, such as heart-mind coherence, can help individuals effectively replace stressful thoughts and emotional patterns with more positive perceptions and emotions.
The HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) research and education organization has been researching emotional physiology, optimal function, resilience and stress-management for more than 25 years. Find free resources that show and tell more about heart-brain coherence. HeartMath.org
HeartMath Inc. is a cutting-edge performance company providing a range of unique programs for individuals, health professionals and organizations and technologies to improve health and well-being, while dramatically reducing stress and boosting performance and productivity.