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A paper heart ripped in two pieces, hanging from a line by clothes pins.

How Stress and Love Impact Heart Health

Stress isn’t just a mental experience: it is an experience which encompasses the whole body. When we feel stressed, we aren’t merely thinking of stressful things, our palms sweat, our breaths become more shallow, our eyes may struggle to stay focused, and our hearts beat what feels like a million miles per minute. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that stress can have a strong impact on the heart and heart health. In fact, according to research released by Harvard University, “There’s no question that stress can exert real physiologic effects on the body—including the heart. This is most true in the case of severe and sudden (acute) stress.” They explain that this is the kind of stress that most often follows immediate traumatic news – like the death of a loved one. Not only do circumstances such as these cause extreme anxiety, but, in rare cases, they have been known to cause a heart attack.

Broken Heart Syndrome

Known as “broken heart syndrome,” this phenomenon of heart attacks being triggered by stress is more common among women than men, but can potentially affect both sexes. However, while broken heart syndrome can sometimes result from severe and acute stress, the data regarding the connection between daily stress and cardiovascular disease isn’t as well defined. That being said, Dr. Deepak Bhatt, who serves as director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, believes that “Stress does cause some people to act in ways that increase their risk for heart disease.”

Sometimes the correlation is as simple as knowing that individuals who are experiencing stress might be more likely to turn to “comfort foods” which are usually unhealthy and can contribute to artery damage. In this way, stress can cause heart disease by establishing several pathways which can increase our risk. But new research shows that the relationship between stress and our heart health may be more intensive than we previously realized.

A Deeper Connection Between Our Minds and Our Hearts Revealed

Rosemary K.M. Sword is a counselor and Time Perspective Therapist who works in a private practice in Maui. Her practice is based on Dr. Zimbardo’s Temporal Theory which has been known to help individuals (especially those with PTSD) alter the ways in which they think about their past traumatic experiences, enabling them to break free from their present fatalistic mindset so that they can learn to focus on a more positive future. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, himself, has been often referred to as the “voice of contemporary psychology.” Perhaps best known for his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Dr. Zimbardo has received numerous awards and worldwide acclaim for his work in the field of psychological research, including receiving the prestigious Gold Medal in Science Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012.

From their research on stress and how it affects the heart , Dr. Zimbardo and Sword reveal that they “discovered that just like the brain in our cranium has left and right hemispheres, our heart has a brain comprised of two nodes.” The term “heart brain” which fittingly describes this phenomenon was first introduced in 1991 by Dr. J. Andrew Armour who believed that the complex nervous system in the heart qualified it as a “little brain” of sorts. However, the heart’s “brain” may be more intricate than previously assumed. According to Dr. Zimbardo and Sword, “The heart is much more than just a pump; it conducts the cellular symphony that is the very essence of our being. And the heart has a memory stored in its muscles, just like our brain stores our daily experiences.”

Research conducted by HeartMath Institute shows that the heart actually sends more information to the brain than the brain to the heart. The rhythms of our hearts can affect our perceptions and how we process information. In this way, the signals sent to the brain from our hearts can actually influence our emotional experiences. They explain that “HeartMath research confirms that negative emotions can create nervous system chaos, while positive emotions will have the opposite soothing effect. Most significantly, we can boost our immune system functioning and create physiological benefits by focusing our vision on positive emotions.” This relationship might provoke the question similar to that of “which came first?,” however Dr. Zimbardo and Sword argue that there is no contest between the influence of the heart and the brain, but rather both are integral to our human physiological and psychological experience.

That being said, because of the intricate systems within the heart that can both respond to and influence our brains, Dr. Zimbardo and Sword have found that our heart can essentially remember things. They’ve find that in the majority of cases, heart attacks don’t “just happen,” they’re the accumulation of years of stress that the heart effectively remembers. Hypertension, then, is a muscle memory of the heart being stuck in past negatives that were stressful. When the heart has stored enough stress in its memory, it can respond in a painful, and sometimes even fatal way.

Understanding Positive Stress and Negative Stress

It’s important to remember, though, when discussing stress, that not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Stress can be defined as anything that causes a state of emotional strain or tension, and, believe it or not, this can be positive as well as negative. For example, when surprised with a party, some people might react elatedly or with panic, but either experience can be defined as stress depending on how either emotional state impacts the individual emotionally, mentally, and physically. Similarly, put into a positive context, some stress can motivate us to accomplish things, like studying for a test or meeting a deadline. This stress can result in positive feelings once the task is completed, and can ultimately lead to greater happiness through increased productivity.

Conversely, negative stress can result from harmful situations such as when we are bullied or are forced to endure conditions which make us feel uncomfortable or unsafe. While we might try to act normally and resume our lives seemingly unimpeded, we are actually straining ourselves and our relationships as a result of this stress. This stress can negatively impact our decisions and behaviors, and can ultimately lead to increased hypertension and high blood pressure, which can affect how our blood clots. This is what leads to heart attacks.

Stress can impact our heart by changing how we interact and even empathize with others. When feeling stressed, we may be less likely to relate to outside experiences, making us seem cold and uncaring, when in reality we are simply overwhelmed with our own emotional experiences. But how can we fix this and reduce the impact stress has not only on our social well-being but our physical and mental one, as well? Dr. Zimbardo and Sword suggest learning “simple self-soothing behaviors that don’t cost us anything but a thought and a little time – like conscious breathing,meditation, or taking a walk.” These coping methods, they believe, can restore a sense of control and thus counteract the overreaction of our heart’s muscle memory which contributes to hypertension and prematurely wears out our hearts. They explain that “Conscientiousness is the only predictor of longevity. By becoming more conscious of how we react during stressful situations and taking action to calm ourselves when we are stressed out, we can gain the strength we need to carry on.”

Because of this, we must, even in times of stress, learn to offer help to those in need, thereby counteracting the egocentric tendencies of stress with sociocentric tendencies. A good source of help during times of stress can be a therapist or counselor, whose role is to work with the individual to recognize the sources of their client’s stress and address those, thereby reducing the amount of stress experienced. In this way, we find that the true enemy of stress, and of stress-induced heart problems, is collaborative effort, and positivity-based productivity. These things can be essential in combating the catastrophic thoughts and feelings often provoked by stress, and protecting the individual from the negative, and sometimes fatal results.

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