This blog changed, however, when my aunt died this week. Suddenly, in her sleep. It was an unexpected death, cause to be determined. As a physician I suspect a stroke or a heart attack. Either way, cholesterol is the common denominator. Losing my aunt reminds me how powerful the heart is as an emotional center, something we physicians do not often discuss. In the wake of her death, the hearts of all of those close to her are affected. In fact, her sister and best friend had a mild heart attack later that same day.
When I do Osteopathic treatments, I often note tightness in the fascia, muscles and ribs that brace the back of the heart, the mid and upper back. So many of us hold tension here. I place a hand of the tight fascia and find the direction of ease. I take musculoskeletal connections to the heart where they want to go to rest and unwind. As I do this, a natural conversation often arises about what lends to this tightness. What are the stressors caving in on you? How are you handling it? How are you taking care of yourself? Are you living in line with your passions, your goals, your dreams? Can you hold your own heart in a loving embrace?
There are books on stress management that I love by a company I have known for years, HeartMath. HeartMath talks about “congruence” and “heart rate variability”. They have biofeedback sensors and fancy computer games where people can learn how to live in “sync” with their heart. HeartMath has become so prominent in the field that when I was in medical school, cardiologists were implementing their programs to help patients practice techniques to lower their stress levels and prevent second heart attacks. They have research to prove that you can calm down erratic heart patterns and actually physically lower heart disease risk through mindful awareness and slowing down. These books and techniques remind us of the powerful intersection between our physical and emotional selves.
Stress is pervasive in our culture and epidemic in our time. My next blog series will likely be on stress and its effects. Our hearts are emotional centers that track our stress physiologically. It is important to remember that hearts need our attention. Hearts need healthy food. Hearts need oxygen, exercise and exertion (30 minutes 5 days a week is what the American Heart Association recommends to be exact). Hearts need to be in sync with our rhythm, at peace in our chest. Hearts need “in fill” time as much as they need connection with others.
When I was in medical school, I was fascinated with everything I learned. When we studied the heart I was learning the anatomy, electricity and various sounds it makes. One night, in my dorm room, I placed my stethoscope on my chest as I lay down to sleep. Lub dub lub dub. That is the sound it makes. I listened and listened. What an honor it is that our hearts keep beating, never stopping, until the end.
Next time you want a little practice to get in touch with your heart try this. It’s from adapted from the work of HeartMath:
Rest comfortably, sitting, standing or laying down.
Close your eyes.
Shift your breathing to your belly.
Activate a positive emotion. Any positive emotion will do, no matter how big or how small.
How you feel seeing a loved one.
Watching a beautiful rainbow.
Drinking your morning cup of coffee.
Feel the positive emotion through your chest, expanding.
Breathe with it as long as you can.
Open your eyes.