Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Anxiety and the Heart

In my work over the past 29 years, the relationship between the emotional heart and the physical heart has been very clear. As I have worked with clients who have atrial fibrillation or other forms of cardiac arrhythmia, I have noticed patterns of life arrhythmia, with corresponding emotional stress, including anxiety.

After her mother was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, my colleague Doris Jeanette found herself paying more attention to the physical heart and the relationship of the emotional heart to the physical heart. She started to notice the relationship between anxiety and heart disease, which makes great intuitive sense.

She noted that "numerous research studies reveal that people who have been diagnosed with anxiety are two to three times more likely to die from a heart attack." No one is immune from anxiety, be it a low-grade response to stress or a more intense and severe, even ongoing state of arousal.

Doris writes, "Your nervous system sends signals to your heart so it beats with the proper rhythm. This occurs automatically via the automatic nervous system, so you do not need to think about making your heart beat correctly. When you are anxious, your nervous system becomes very upset. As a result, this static energy, which is called anxiety, sends erratic signals to your heart, instead of harmonious signals. Your heart can become so upset it cannot pump blood fully to all the proper places." This can either be a momentary occurrence or become a chronic condition.

One bout of anxiety will not impact your health in a major adverse way. However, when anxiety becomes chronic and even an expected response, it indirectly and cumulatively compromises your heart health. Doris draws a parallel between anxiety's impact on the heart and the cumulative effect of acid reflux. She reflects that in and of itself, acid reflux is not serious. Yet, over time, it can "seriously damage your heart and scar your esophagus. When you are anxious, the acid build up in your stomach pushes the acid rapidly up your esophageal tube." Acid moves up towards your mouth, and pushes against your heart. "Over time, the chronic bangs to your heart can result in a heart attack," says Doris.

Sadly, in spite of scientific research and what it teaches us about the relationship between heart health and anxiety, most doctors, do not focus on the emotional health of their patients, and are often not conscious of the relationship between emotional health and physical health. As a result, they do not talk about the relationship between anxiety and physical heart health, and they do not recommend mind-body techniques to improve both emotional and physical heart health.

You can increase your self-care by:

1. Learning to turn your focus inward, and seeing how you feel physically and emotionally at different points in your day. Are there any points of tension? Do you notice yourself becoming anxious, and if so, under what kinds of circumstances? If you find yourself becoming anxious, how do you respond to yourself?

2. Slowing down and bringing safety and presence to your anxiety. Do you have a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat? Place your hand on the knot and adjust your hand to just the right amount of contact. If your hand had a message to communicate, what would it be? And see how that feels to your body and heart.

3. Taking time out to sit in a comfortable position, and get grounded in your body in the moment. By finding physical support for your body and allowing yourself to sink into it, you relax your muscles and often soften your defenses. Your mind becomes more clear to your inner directives. And your mind gives room for the voice of the heart.

4. Listening to your body. Following your heart. Your body and heart provide critical information about where you need to be, what you need to do and not do and where you need to do it. Your body and heart provide the voice of your intuition--your inner knowing and ultimately, a very important compass for life direction and decision making.

5. Learning that discomfort, anxiety and tension is a signal with important information about who you are and what you need moment to moment and over time. Learning how to translate your heart's and body's language of discomfort or anxiety can help you identify what you really need…and then take steps to get it.

The better able you are to dig more deeply into the feelings and needs of your body and heart, the less anxiety you will feel and the more direct information you will have to be yourself and take care of yourself. This is all good for the physical heart as well as the emotional heart.

The Inner Skills of Leadership

"I've looked at some training programs for leaders. I'm discouraged by how they often focus on the development of skills to manipulate the external world rather than the skills necessary to go inward and make the inner journey."

--Parker Palmer

Leaders, by definition both assume positions of power and impact other people through their use of power. Two key questions are: 1. how do we define power? and 2. how does a leader use their power?

A familiar image of power is the "power over kind," where power is a currency granted to those at the top of a hierarchy, those with the greatest material resources or those who by virtue of being appointed take on positions of power. This kind of power involves manipulating the external environment, including the people who are part of it. In this model of leadership there are "power haves"and "power have nots." Power must be granted to the "power have not" by the "power haves." This model can feel highly empowered and sometimes omnipotent for those on top, and highly disempowering and sometimes impotent for those on the bottom.

Another image of power, one that may be less familiar in common circles, is a "power with" model. In this model, the "leader" may be in the front of a project or effort, but does not operate from a "power haves" and "power have nots" model. In this model, the leader does not wish to control or have power over. S/he seeks to cultivate the natural power that lives inside each of the people s/he works with. To the degree the leader develops his/her own inner resources, and develops an internally grounded sense of power, the leader holds a space with other people that encourages, models and may even inspire, internally grounded power in others. Parker Palmer notes that leaders in our society often rise to power by "operating very competently and effectively in the external world, sometimes at the cost of inner awareness." These people tend toward extroversion, which may include "a tendency to ignore what is going on inside themselves." The externally oriented model is focused more on doing and producing tangible results in a concrete way, than on being and the process by which results are produced, including the impact on the people involved in the process. Worked long and sometimes inhuman hours, overlooking our basic human needs, including the need to eat when the body is hungry, to take breaks to walk around and decompress, to go to the bathroom in a timely manner are common when we focus on the externally driven model of leadership and success. There is often a high personal price paid to succeed under these conditions and a high internal price paid to work for the leader who models and demands this kind of work environment. Some of the inner skills of leadership that need to be cultivated include: * Meditation and reflection, to develop and maintain a spiritual connection with self and the larger world * Learning to listen to and heed the signals of one's own body, including when to eat, when to focus, when to relax and when to go to the bathroom * Learning what ones own natural skills and gifts are and what skills are best sought from other people * A sense of internal power through knowing who one is, rather than seeking external power that can be granted or taken away by others * A sense of groundedness: emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually, that leads to "good decisions" in a wholistic sense. Good results are generated through a fair and healthy process for self and others. * An inner sense of timing. This includes a sense of right pace (for self and others), when to stop and when to proceed. * Using intuition as a sense of guidance in addition to facts and other concrete information. Integrating facts and intuition usually produces a more complete picture for decision making If a leader models the above skills, s/he will inspire others to do the same. And both our organizations and our world will reflect more fairness, equity and ultimately, sustainability.