Are Our Hearts Hardwired to Heal Our Heads?
“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process”- Vincent Van Gogh
We are accustomed to thinking of our brains as the arbiter of decisions and higher functioning in our lives. While the brain weighs approximately three pounds and the average heart for a man is 10 ounces and 8 ounces for a woman, the heart often speaks more loudly and effectively than the mind.
Although they are a mass of tissue, fiber, veins and arteries, both organs guide us in rudimentary and executive functioning, higher learning, decision making and healing.
What Is the Link Between Depression and Cardiac Well-Being?
According to Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, “When people are stressed, anxious or feeling down, they’re not apt to make the healthy choice because they’re so overwhelmed by their situation. A person’s mental health, in terms of their general health, is underestimated.”
The implications are broad. When we are in a state of emotional imbalance, we are not equipped to make heart-forward decisions, not only with regard to nutrition and exercise, but to relationships as well. Our bodies are repositories for all manner of emotional detritus that contribute to mental and physical disease. Taking the time to contemplate the ways in which the emotional heart speaks for the cardiac muscles that pumps life sustaining blood through our bodies is a crucial factor in keeping it ticking. Once we allow ourselves to listen to the language of the heart, our relationships have the opportunity to thrive rather than wither. They are places of refuge, rather than a storage shed for refuse.
Un-Break Your Heart
Broken heart syndrome, also referred to as “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” is a genuinely diagnosable medical condition that is stress induced and has at its core loss and unacknowledged grief. Tako tsubo, are octopus traps that resemble the pot-like shape of the stricken heart.
A woman in her mid-50’s experienced an unexpected heart attack on her way home from a “normal” gym workout. Although she had many risk factors that included family pre-disposition, elevated cholesterol (partly related to diet), fluctuating blood pressure, poor sleep and high levels of stress, a powerful factor was emotional blockage that contributed to the arterial blockage. She had been both a personal and professional caregiver throughout her life, and as such she was not taking care of her own emotional well-being in the same manner as she had those she counseled and loved. Numerous losses throughout her life, including the deaths of her husband and parents, had her constricting emotional flow in the service of “keeping on keeping on.” She minimized her own challenges since she reasoned that she had the resources to manage them, unlike many she encountered in her daily life. In doing so, she prevented herself from fully feeling them. The saying, “You can’t heal what you don’t feel,” rang true for her.
Even after the cardiac event, she denied the possibility that she might feel a sense of depression or, at least, grief over what her body had endured. She was advised by another woman she met in cardiac rehab that unanticipated feelings might arise, since she was told, “You’ve suffered a trauma and may exhibit PTSD symptoms.” While it didn’t occur immediately, a year and a half later, she found herself awash in tears, both mourning for all of the years she had repressed emotions and celebrating the fact that she was still alive to make the necessary changes in all areas. Her feelings were raw and real; a first for the recovering co-dependent and workaholic she had become. As a performance oriented thinker, she followed the guidance of her head far more often than that of her heart. As a result of her cardiac experience, she has found a renewed determination to turn her attention to her own needs, listening to what her heart was asking her to do. Attending a support group for survivors, learning, teaching and writing about heart health were part of her recovery as well.