“No other organ, perhaps no other object in human life, is as imbued with metaphor and meaning as the human heart. Over the course of history, the heart has been a symbol of our emotional lives… The very word “emotion” stems in part from the French verb ‘émouvoir’, meaning ‘to stir up.’ And perhaps it’s only logical that emotions would be linked to an organ characterized by its agitated movement.” (Jauhar) We at Unified Caring Association (UCA) continue to research and learn more about caring for others and for ourselves. In this journey we discovered a well spoken TedTalk by Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist and writer. In his presentation, we hear about how our emotions can in fact change the shape of our hearts.
The TedTalk from the Heart
Doctor Jauhar eloquently leads us on a journey during his speech. He recounts stories and examples of how the heart is affected by the mind and emotions felt by patients who are extremely happy or sad. “…we have come to understand that the connection between the heart and the emotions is a highly intimate one. The heart may not originate our feelings, but it is highly responsive to them.” (Jauhar) Doctor Jauhar continues on to explain how the nerves that control our unconscious processes like our heartbeat, can sense distress. This distress can trigger an abnormal fight-or-flight response that is often seen by signs similar to heart failure. Some examples are blood vessels constrict. The heart rate begins to gallop and there is an increase in blood pressure. All of these symptoms often result in damage.
In recent history we have been more prone to seeing doctors uphold a scientific biological approach to heart. However with newer research and imagery we can literally see the heart organ change shape in response to emotions. “[The heart is] more the domain of doctors like me, wielding technologies that even a century ago… were considered taboo. In the process, the heart has been transformed … into a machine that can be manipulated and controlled.” Doctor Jauhar states that there is a golden nugget resulting from this breakthrough. These techniques and solutions that doctors are currently prescribing to their patients need to be complemented by caring attention to the emotional well-being. This is reflecting upon the descriptions of the heart dating back to classical history. This is an era where it was believed that the heart was the seat of all thoughts and emotions; our lifeline.
To help explain this concept of how emotional health aids physical heart health, Doctor Jauhar cites a study published in the British journal “The Lancet” in 1990 called Lifestyle Heart Trial. This was a study based on a group of patients that had coronary (heart) disease. A portion of the group was given a ‘standard’ treatment plan (a.k.a. the control group). The other portion of the group was given an intense set of lifestyle changes. These changes included diet and exercise, stress management assistance, and support group activities. In the end, the group that was prescribed the intensive lifestyle changes by far was healthier than the control group. What is also interesting is “…some patients [placed] in the control group adopted diet and exercise plans that were nearly as intense as those in the intensive lifestyle group. Their heart disease still progressed. Diet and exercise alone were not enough to facilitate coronary disease regression. At both one-year and five-year follow-ups, stress management was more strongly correlated with reversal of coronary disease than exercise was.” (Jauhar)
Broken Heart Syndrome
It appears that Doctor Jauhar is correct when he says, “…the emotional heart intersects with its biological counterpart in surprising and mysterious ways.” (Jauhar) This is best seen through a heart disorder that came on the scene about 20 years ago called “takotsubo cardiomyopathy”-“broken heart syndrome.” This is a disorder where the heart acutely weakens in response to intense stress or grief. Some examples of this syndrome are the sudden end of a romance or the death of a loved one, and even during a large widespread social upheaval, like a natural disaster. Doctor Jauhar displays a picture on the screen behind him of a normal heart, a broken heart and a takotsubo urn for which the syndrome is named.
The heart image in the middle is the broken heart, and looks very different from the normal healthy heart on the left. “It appears stunned and frequently balloons into the distinctive shape of a takotsubo, shown on the right, a Japanese pot with a wide base and a narrow neck. We don’t know exactly why this happens, and the syndrome usually resolves within a few weeks. However, in the acute period, it can cause heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, even death.” That is very serious. Interestingly, broken heart syndrome can be on set in relation to an extremely happy event as well. The main difference seen here is that the heart appears to react differently. The heart has ballooning in the midportion and not at the top as when the syndrome is from strife. Either way broken hearts are deadly, figuratively and literally.
Animals Feel this Too
In 1980, the journal Science published findings on caged rabbits. These rabbits were fed a high-cholesterol diet in an effort to study cardiovascular disease in the rabbits. Much to the scientists’ surprise some rabbits became more diseased than others. “The rabbits had very similar diet, environment and genetic makeup. They thought it might have something to do with how frequently the technician interacted with the rabbits.” (Jauhar) The same high-cholesterol diet study was repeated with the rabbits, but they were divided into two groups. The one change was how the scientists interacted, or ignored the rabbits. “… in one group, the rabbits were removed from their cages, held, petted, talked to, played with, and in the other group, the rabbits remained in their cages and were left alone.” (Jauhar) After a year it was found that the rabbits who were interacted with and felt loved had 60% less aortic disease than the ignored rabbits. This is interesting because the rabbits as a whole all had similar cholesterol levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
Keeping up with a Health Trend
It can be said that we are reaching the limits to what we can do for our heart health when we rely purely on biological processes. To keep the trend of discovering new ways to stay heart healthy something has to change. We will need to begin incorporating emotional health with our physical health. We can do this in various ways including strengthening our emotional intelligence. Doctor Jauhar clarifies that “The American Heart Association still does not list emotional stress as a key modifiable risk factor for heart disease, perhaps in part because blood cholesterol is so much easier to lower than emotional and social disruption.” (Jauhar) Taking the easier path is appearing to be less of a good long-term strategy.
To keep up with our heart health we will need to begin using tools to increase our emotional well-being too. “Perhaps, if we recognize that when we say “a broken heart,” we are indeed sometimes talking about a real broken heart. We must, must pay more attention to the power and importance of the emotions in taking care of our hearts.” (Jauhar)