Think about a time when you felt angry, anxious, or stressed. Maybe you had a big exam, an argument with a loved one, or a jarring emotional situation. It’s likely that your heart started to race, your breathing became quick and shallow, and you felt yourself start to tremble. Your muscles tensed up. Maybe you even felt dizzy or nauseous.
Now, remember a time or situation that elicited emotions like contentment, joy, and happiness. You may have been surrounded by people you love, immersed in nature, or actively doing something that you are passionate about. How did you feel at that moment? Probably calm, but energized, and in union with everything around you.
Emotions affect your body. The emotions you experience on a regular basis, both positive and negative, often manifest as physical symptoms that directly influence your heart. But grief, stress, anger, jealousy, shame, and fear have a very different effect on your heart than joy, contentment, and happiness.
Below we will explore what happens to your heart in the presence of negative emotions, and then a few ways to reduce the adverse impact these emotions have on your heart.
The Biology of Negative Emotions
According to Dr. Lauren Munsch Dal Farra, cardiologist and CEO of PALM Health, “When you experience a situation that makes you feel negative emotions like anger, stress, or fear, there are a host of biological responses that occur inside your body.” Your liver produces more cholesterol, your bile production is thrown off balance, and blood begins to stagnate in your liver, which inhibits its ability to detoxify. However, the main effects occur in and around your heart.
Stress and Anger
When you experience excessive pressure or stress, your body reacts physiologically. Whether it is work-related stress, a conflict, or something else, your body perceives it as a harmful event, attack, or threat to survival, activating what you may know as the fight or flight response. You might feel muscle tension, get a headache or upset stomach, or start shallow breathing. On a cardiac level, your blood pressure increases, your heart rate quickens, and your blood vessels constrict.
Like stress, anger can also trigger part of this fight or flight response. When you’re angry, your heart rate increases, blood pressure elevates, and adrenaline kicks in — mirroring fight or flight symptoms.
While the fight or flight response is designed to protect you from harm, it can be detrimental if elicited too frequently. The stress hormones that are released in this state, when elicited in high concentrations, contribute to conditions like gastrointestinal disease, adrenal fatigue, and, most of all, cardiovascular disease. Thus, experiencing stress and anger often heightens your susceptibility to illness and puts your heart at risk.
Your heart is also greatly influenced by anxiety. Most people have experienced the symptoms that often come along with it, like dizziness, faintness, trembling, fluctuating body temperatures, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. But anxiety and panic attacks can also result in chest pain.
When you feel anxious or panicky, your blood pressure increases and your heart’s demand for oxygen does as well. Sometimes, those physiological cardiac changes lead to chest pain. However, other symptoms of anxiety that are not related to cardiac mechanisms can also inadvertently cause chest pain — for example, hyperventilation.
Anxiety and panic disorders are more common than you may think. Studies suggest that one out of every four individuals seeking treatment for chest pain is actually suffering from an anxiety or panic disorder. Like the fight or flight response, constantly experiencing the physiological effects of prolonged panic or anxiety can take a major toll on your health.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably felt “heartbroken,” but did you know that there is an actual physiological reaction linked to heartbreak? Sudden emotional trauma or grief, such as a loss of a loved one or a breakup, can cause a severe but reversible heart muscle weakness that mimics a heart attack and can result in chest pain.
“Medically named “stress cardiomyopathy” but colloquially known as ‘broken heart syndrome,’ this days-long surge in adrenaline and other stress hormones temporarily stuns the heart,” says Dr. Dal Farra.
So, where do all of these biological consequences of negative emotions lead you? The adverse effects of stress, anger, anxiety, and grief on the heart leads your body into a state of cardiac incoherence.
Cardiac incoherence is a state of mind-body disconnection that is primarily recognizable by heart rate variability — the variation in time intervals between your heartbeats. Stress and other negative emotions correlate to your heart beating irregularly. An example of an uneven heart rate pattern would be if in one ten-second interval, your heart beat four times, and in the next ten-second interval it beat nine times. This variability is one of the most effective measures of your stress and emotional well-being. But, how does this connection work?
Just like other organs, your heart sends messages to your brain and receives messages from it though nerve impulses. Sixty-five percent of the messages passed between the two organs actually originate in the heart and travel to the brain. Those nerve impulse signals take on a certain form and pace when they are transmitted. That form and pace can be either ordered or disordered, and they inform and influence the brain.
Ever noticed how when you’re feeling angry, stressed, or anxious, it’s hard to think straight? Your brain feels fuzzy and you may jump to conclusions or have trouble problem-solving. You might look back later and say to yourself, “What was I thinking?” That’s because the more disordered that the form and pace of the signals from the heart are, the more difficult it is for your brain to fulfill its functions. In moments of high stress or significant negative emotion your brain becomes inhibited: your reaction time slows and your ability to reason diminishes.
The physiological effects of negative emotions and the ensuing disconnect between your mind and body can be explained by the concept of cardiac incoherence, and in the long run, ongoing cardiac incoherence can pose a risk to your mental and physical health. So, how do you use this knowledge to mitigate the effects of negative emotions, particularly on the heart?
The goal is to strive for cardiac coherence. Positive emotions are linked to a more regular heartbeat. Because the heart functions as the primary oscillator for the rest of your body — your cerebral, nervous, respiratory, and hormonal systems in particular — cardiac coherence brings a harmonious rhythm to your body’s function. The result? You are happier, more efficient, and less fatigued.
Since positive emotions such as joy and happiness elicit cardiac coherence, they are associated with biological effects (just like negative emotions). In the long term, positive emotions can lead to a decrease in coronary artery plaque, an improvement in immune function, an increase in antibody levels, and more.
All that being said, how do you internalize positive emotions while reducing negative emotions at the same time? Luckily, there are many techniques you can use to strengthen your mind-body connection and establish cardiac coherence, increasing your capacity for joy and happiness.
According to Dr. Dal Farra, “The relaxation response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.” One way to elicit the relaxation response is through meditation. This tool counteracts the physiological effects of the fight or flight state and prolonged stress.
Those who practice mindful meditation regularly have established a practiced response to stress and anxiety in which they can consciously reduce blood pressure and heart rate and increase well-being by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and attaining a state of relaxation.
There are plenty of other ways to elicit the relaxation response, including breathing techniques, visualization, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, massage, and being immersed in nature.
Cardiac Coherence Breathing
One specific breathing technique used widely at PALM Health is targeted particularly towards bringing you into a state of cardiac coherence. To start this technique, sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Relax all of your muscles from the bottom up, starting with your feet and progressing up to your face. Then, you’ll begin breathing.
The breathing technique itself uses two phases. In the first phase, exhale through the mouth with your lips slightly parted. You should feel your belly naturally pull in a little bit, but do not force anything. In the second phase, breathe in gently and naturally through your nose, feeling your belly push out with the inhale.
Continue this two-phase breathing for 10 to 20 minutes. As you go, try your best to ignore distracting thoughts and try not worry about whether your breathing technique is successful or not. Instead, focus your mind on thoughts of tranquility and love. With practice, the relaxation response will come more quickly and naturally. When you are finished, sit quietly for a few moments and enjoy the state of coherence.
It’s best to do cardiac coherence breathing first thing in the morning. As you progress, practicing cardiac coherence breathing just once or twice a day can be enough to effectively counteract the stress response and bring deep relaxation and peace.
Your emotions, whether they are positive or negative, have a significant effect on your body. Stress, anger, and anxiety can greatly influence your physiological systems, put you in a state of cardiac incoherence, and lead to adverse effects on your long-term heart health if experienced too frequently. On the other hand, finding joy and happiness and encouraging cardiac coherence with relaxation techniques can not only mitigate health risks related to negative emotions, but also greatly improve your general well-being.
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