Most Americans have heard that stress increases blood pressure, but few actually grasp how connected the cardiovascular system is to their emotional well-being. At one point, psychologists believed that emotions were purely mental expressions generated by the brain alone. However, decades of research has disproven this belief. Through countless scientific trials, we now know that emotions have as much to do with the heart and body as they do with the brain.
The Institute of HeartMath, a 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 cardiovascular system is linked to how we feel. According to HeartMath research, the following is clear:
- Feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity result in erratic heart rhythm patterns. These negative emotions create a chain reaction in the body where stress hormone levels increase, blood vessels constrict and blood pressure rises.
- Positive emotions like love, care, appreciation and compassion result in a smooth, rolling heart rhythm. These harmonious heart rhythms are considered to be indicators of cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance.
In light of these findings, experts emphasize that learning how to shift out of stressful, emotional reactions into positive emotions can have enormous benefits for the heart. To make this shift, HeartMath officials suggest reaching for feelings of appreciation – as this is one of the most concrete and easiest positive emotions to self-generate and sustain.
Anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity are not the only emotions that are harmful to the heart.
According to Matthew Burg, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and Colombia School of Medicine, depression is also a risk for developing heart disease. Burg confirms that being depressed is associated with a poorer outcome in those who’ve had surgery to unclog blocked arteries following a heart attack.
People who struggle with negative emotions often don’t get the help they need. Despite the potential impact on heart health, most cardiologists are not sure how to address anger, depression or stress – or even how to get patients to reveal how they feel. According to Burg, “It’s not like going to a patient and saying, ‘You have high cholesterol, and here’s the pill.'”
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have discovered a brilliant way to help individuals whose heart health is suffering from negative emotions. Shown to have a healthy effect on blood vessel function, researchers believe that listening to your favorite music is good for your cardiovascular system. They found that:
- Music selected by study participants because it made them feel good brought them a sense of joy.
- Listening to favored music caused tissue in the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate, which increased blood flow and reduced blood pressure.
- This heart healthy response matched what the same researchers found in a 2005 study on laughter.
- On the other hand, when study volunteers listened to music they perceived as stressful, their blood vessels narrowed – thus hampering blood flow and raising blood pressure.
Diet and exercise continue to be crucial for keeping the cardiovascular system healthy. However, the medical community is increasingly aware of the importance of emotions in recovering from a heart-related illness and for maintaining heart health. Whether focusing on appreciation, indulging in laughter or listening to your favorite tunes, there is no doubt that positive emotions have the power to improve heart health.