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.