Why is it that some distractions from anxiety and unwanted emotion only feel good temporarily, while others seem to bring a longer, lasting sense of peace?
I’m not a mental health expert or a trained psychologist. So fair warning that nothing you read here is to be interpreted as such. I’m also not a spiritual advisor, pastor, priest, or guru or either. So again, fair warning.
Is this a season of “the blues” for you?
For many reasons this time of year (Christmas & New Years) is full of stress and anxiety.
For others grieving the death of a beloved family member or friend, it is also numbingly depressing. That has seemed magnified 100x with the events of school violence that occurred recently in our corner of Michigan.
And many people’s experiences with the infamous virus is once more a challenge, thanks to the seasonality we experience in the northern Midwest.
I find myself yearning for a vacation from the slow, constant flow of bad news and confusing information. Maybe you do too.
Taking a short break from worry, anxiety, and bad news can take many forms…In fact in a kind of irony, we have so many escape outlets, the choice of how to escape can be almost overwhelming.
Listening to music. Watching a movie. Reading a book. Catching up with old friends. Mindlessly scrolling on social media. This can be an afternoon vacation.
What’s the difference between distraction and a greater sense of peace?
But not all mental vacations are made the same; it can also be an unsatisfying distraction that doesn’t help us to take away any unwanted emotion or anxiety – just postpone them.
Why is it that some distractions from unwanted emotion and anxiety only feel good temporarily, while others seem to bring a longer, lasting sense of peace?
This is the kind of question that fascinates me because I know that answer is somewhere to be found in the nervous system.
In fact, the answer may be found in the circuitry between the brain and the heart. And when we talk about the relationship between the brain and heart, we’re first talking science: biology and physiology.
But since the effects of this relationship affects the human spirit, psyche, and connection with others, then we are also drifting into spirituality.
What is the heart/brain connection and what does this connection have to do vacation from stress, anxiety, and unwanted emotion?
The human heart does more than pump blood?
Most peoples’ perceptions of the heart are to think of it as the pump that moves the blood around your body. It is an accurate picture, but it limits the heart to its mechanical functions and is incomplete.
Almost every organ in our body does more than just the primary functions we may remember from high school biology. Many organs produce hormones, neurotransmitters, and have a unique communication pathway with the body’s autonomic nervous system. The relationship between the immune system in the intestine and the influence of blood pressure by the kidney are just two examples.
The heart and its relationship with the brain stands in its own category. The heart/brain connection is so intricate and important to our health and well-being, that the heart and brain communicate in four different ways.
The four heart-brain connections
Experts in heart-brain communication divide this unique relationship between the heart and brain as:
- Biochemical connections
- Neurological connections
- Biophysical connections
- And Electromagnetic connections
If you are like many people, you might have a basic idea of what is meant by biochemical and neurological, but not biophysical and electromagnetic. We will talk briefly about each, and how they relate to a sense of well-being and freedom from worry and anxiety.
The biochemical heart connections
Did you know the heart makes feel good hormones (the chemistry of the blood stream)?
We rarely think of the heart as part of the body’s hormonal system, but it is!
It has been thought of as a hormone gland since the early 1980s. One powerful hormone produced by the heart is oxytocin, the body chemical associated with love and feelings of connection. The influence of oxytocin is what helps binds couples together and mothers to their babies.
In fact, the heart produces as much oxytocin for the body as the brain does.
The idea of the heart being at the center of affection and feelings of love is a metaphor that makes sense.
Did you know the heart makes feel good neurotransmitters (the chemistry of the nervous system)?
Neurotransmitters are the chemical compounds of the nervous system. They are released when certain kinds of nerves are stimulated.
When neurotransmitters are released, they travel to either stimulate or inhibit the electrical potential of other nearby nerves. Neurotransmitters are part of the symphony of stimulation and inhibition across a variety of neurons that generate 99.9% of what we experience of life. While we may think of neurotransmitters as just part of the nervous system, the heart has many synchronous functions with our nervous system, and it produces several neurotransmitters.
The heart synthesizes and produces and releases its own neurotransmitters called catecholamines, specifically norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine.
Epinephrine and norepinephrine are part of the body’s adrenaline response. You can think of the adrenaline response as the fight-or-flight response. It makes sense why the heart would produce adrenaline neurotransmitters, especially if the body is facing a threat.
But what about dopamine?
You may know dopamine as one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals. Dopamine is often called the happy hormone (technically a neurotransmitter). Dopamine has an important role in human reward and learning behaviors, our experience of pleasure, personal motivation, control of the body’s motor system, and our reproductive behavior.
The fact that the heart makes its own dopamine should be a big indicator to us, that the heart is part of our body’s sense of well-being.
We may not think of the heart as a pleasure organ, but the production of dopamine means that the heart helps us experience pleasure.
The neurological connections
Yes, the brain is sending information to the heart, just like the brain is sending information to all the organs. But we should not imagine that this is mostly a one-way street from above-down. The reality is that information going back to the brain from the organs is also just as important and plentiful.
When it comes to the heart, more information is going “upward” back to the brain than from brain to heart.
The unique nervous system in the heart has its own field of study called neurocardiology, which examines the intrinsic cardiac nervous system.
This nervous system of the heart is …
“is an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions, and even feel and sense. Descending activity from the brain in the head via the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS is integrated into the heart’s intrinsic nervous system along with signals arising from sensory neurons in the heart that detect pressure, heart rate and rhythm and hormones.”
To put it in simple terms, the heart is almost like a secondary brain, just like the digestive system.
The biophysical connections (heartbeat evoked potentials)
So what exactly happens when the blood pumps? Yes, the blood flows, but the pump does more than we might realize.
The pulsations of the heart create a cascading wave that is felt throughout the entire body and even in the brain. This is the biophysical connection, also known as a pressure wave.
Heartbeats create pressure waves that move through the body at a faster rate than even the blood flows through the larger arteries. These waves push the blood through the small capillary beds, and in doing so, creating an electrical voltage. Cells feel a kind of squeeze in response to this wave of heart-generated pressure, and this creates protein response which generates voltage.
This voltage response is felt at the brain, which will response in the change in electrical activity as the wave from the heart pump reaches the interior of the skull, about 250 milliseconds after the upper chambers of the heart fire. These electrical changes in the brain are called heartbeat evoked potentials.
The electromagnetic connections
The energy created and used by the heart and brain both create energy fields that we measure with instruments. We measure this field in the brain with an EEG (electroencephalogram) and in the heart with an ECG (electrocardiogram), which shouldn’t be confused with an EKG.
The heart, by far, creates the largest measurable energy output of any organ in the body, much larger than the brain.
This energy output is understood as an electromagnetic field generated by the constant electrical activity of the heart. It is understood that that the electromagnetic heart field is detectable beyond the boundaries of the body, as many as eight feet away, and possibly even further for those who have learned how to engage in the expansion of their heart field.
Scientists can measure multiple heart readings with ECG, and then analyze them using spectral analysis and try to find patterns of change in the heart field. Does the electromagnetic heart measurement seem to change with a change in an emotional state? Can someone direct their own ECG to change its pattern by changing their thoughts? Can one person sense the change in the heart’s electromagnetic field of someone nearby if the field extends beyond the body? Can a heart signal show up in someone else’s body?
All these kinds of questions have been asked and investigated when it comes to the electromagnetic connections between the heart and brain.
In one example, the ECGs of an individual changed when that person focused on feeling of appreciation versus when that person recalled memories of anger. When focusing on appreciation for 10 seconds, the spectral ECG readings showed a much different frequency pattern than the one recalling anger for 10 seconds. The appreciation reading showed more a coherent signal than the anger signal.
The heart-brain connection and self-regulation
There is a strong connection between the heart and brain that is chemical, neurological, biophysical (pulse waves), and electromagnetic.
Many are aware that the brain can influence the heart but are not aware that the heart has influence on the brain. There appears to be an emotional connection between the brain and the heart that matches many of our cultural expressions about the heart being the seat of emotion. “The head” – the cognitive and rational power of the brain, and “the heart” – the emotional and sensing portion of the physical organ of the heart appear to work together in healthy people.
When regulation of emotions is lost, many functions and quality of life are lost. The secret to taking a break from anxiety and unwanted emotion is to learn (or relearn) the discipline of emotional regulation by using the natural heart-brain connection for our physical and emotional betterment.
This process some people call heart-brain entrainment or achieving heart-brain coherence.
We will examine heart-brain coherence and self-regulation in the second part of this article: How to take a break from unwanted emotion and anxiety – part two.
McCraty, Rollin: The Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance. HeartMath Institute. 2015.