Our Heart: Pump, Emotions, Stress, Energy

Just like our brain, we all have a heart. We know our heart acts as a pump to circulate blood throughout our body. We know that we can have heart attacks and other cardiac diseases. But, did you know that the heart and brain communicate and that the heart communicates with the brain more than the brain communicates with the heart?

When you are feeling stressed, your heart is involved along with your brain. Our emotions influence our hearts and brains. The heart is an electrical system. This shouldn’t surprise you because the ECG (electrocardiograph) that traces our heart rhythm is tracing the electrical rhythm of our heart. The functioning of the brain can also be examined using an EEG (electroencephalograph), which measures the electrical functioning of the brain. Muscles are also measured electrically.

Enough about the electricity for now. Next, a bit of information about how our heart and brain work together when we are experiencing stress.

What is stress and how do you know if you are experiencing stress? Definition of stress:

In medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response, a complex reaction of neurological and endocrinologic systems.

Stress affects many areas of our body. Remember too that all areas of the body are connected. We cannot separate our mind and mental health from our body and physical health. Our emotions affect our brain, mind, and mental health which in turn affect our body. Stress can lead to physical illness and physical illness can lead to stress.

Researchers have discovered that our emotions are a result of our hearts and brains working together. Neurocardiology (a specialty focusing on the brain and the heart working together) research has determined that the heart is a sensory organ. The heart can learn, remember, and make independent functional decisions that do not involve the cerebral cortex. (2003. McCraty, R. energetic-heart.pdf  Institute of HeartMath.)

Our emotions drain our energy. Think about it, when you have had a disagreement with someone, you will often feel tired and make poor decisions. Afterward, we are apt to say to ourselves (maybe even to others) ‘what was I thinking’?https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health

It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.
— Hans Selye

The HeartMath™ System (programs, techniques) includes methods of mental and emotional self-regulation and energy management techniques that lead to a restructure of neural (nervous system) circuits. The techniques assist in the alignment of our mental, emotional, and physical systems. All the techniques affect several areas of the brain: amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and thalamus and improve the synchronization of the heart-brain, hormonal balance, autonomic nervous system, and vagal pathways. Breathing is a vital component of the HeartMath™ systems. But HeartMath™ is much more than breathing. Remember, our heart and head are communicating with each other.

One of the goals of drelaineleadership.coach and HeartMath skills is to guide you to increased internal awareness. I want you to have a beautiful life and that includes one of self-awareness and limited stress. I want you to be in control of your emotional responses.

Stress often leads to us adopting poor coping behaviours that can increase our risk of heart disease and stroke. Some poor coping behaviours include smoking, overeating, absence of physical activity, unhealthy diet. Being overweight, and not taking your prescribed medications as per your doctor’s instructions are also symptoms of stress.

Stress can show up in your body as a headache, back strain, painfully tight shoulder muscles, and stomach pain. Other things that stress can do to you include zapping your energy, create sleep problems, and adding to crankiness, forgetfulness, and not being as in control of yourself as you would like. A chain reaction begins:

Stress > release of adrenalin and cortisol > increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure

You are prepared to fight or flee even though there is no physical danger; no lions, or tigers, or bears.

I will continue to share information about stress and the heart-brain connection in future blogs. But just a little bit at a time.

Our Brains: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Feel

Brains – we all have one. They do a lot for us. We also have a heart, and it too does a lot for us. The two of them even communicate. Did you know that the heart sends more messages to the brain than the brain does to the heart?

We can examine both. We tend to think of the brain as the ruler of our decisions. Sometimes we make a decision such as ‘I am going to get healthy by improving my diet and including more activity in my daily routine’. Then after a couple of days or a week, we might slip. Forming new habits is difficult. Why?

During the cave person period, a part of our brain was developed. Our needs were a little different then than they are now. During that time the focus of the brain was to avoid pain, seek pleasure, take the path of least resistance, and live for today. Pain was predominantly associated with life-threatening events or death; a good thing to avoid. Survival took a lot of energy. Being strong and alert were important and needed alertness, energy, and stamina. Energy comes from food – fats, sugars. Not being alert and aware of the present moment could be disastrous – maybe deadly. These responses are still firmly planted in our brains.

This same part of the brain is responsible for thoughts, emotions, memory, learning, and appetite; this area functions automatically; you can’t turn it on or off (you don’t need to tell your brain to make you breathe, and to make your heartbeat). The healthy habits we need today are the opposite of the cave man’s automatic survival habits. No wonder it is hard to successfully implement healthy diets, calorie-burning, and muscle-building activities. We just weren’t born that way. We experience pain when we exercise, we need to avoid cake and ice cream, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and plan for the future – what we do now can influence our health in years to come. All these things are the opposite of what comes naturally to our remaining caveperson brain. We need to change the way the brain functions. And we have the ability to do that.

The part of our brain known as the frontal lobe is responsible for executive functioning; decision making, planning, starting and stopping behaviours or habits, and delaying gratification. Willpower and self-control! Both of these also come from that same area. Like the physical part of our body, the frontal lobe (part of our brain), does run out of energy. Do you notice that your bad habits often take over later in the day or evening? That is because the energy in that part of the brain is drained, and we revert to our cave person habits of eating lots and taking it easy in an attempt to boost our energy.

We can train our brain. As with any training regular work is needed. To overcome our cave person brain is no different and requires learning and ongoing practice. But it is entirely possible.

I am thrilled to know that there is a reason why it is hard to change the habits of eating and often painful (physically and mentally) activities to be and feel healthy. I am also aware that these changes aren’t going to happen instantaneously, it is going to take time and effort. But knowing that the result (delayed gratification) will be a happy healthy me, I am willing to take the necessary steps. I am also aware that at times I might revert to my cave person brain, and the old habits might take over, but that doesn’t mean failure. It means I just need to get back to making healthy decisions, knowing that I will once again feel and be healthy.

I haven’t written anything on feelings and emotions; after all, I did mention feelings in the title. This is where we need to consider the heart. I’ll address more on feelings and emotions in my next blog.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Who needs emotional intelligence (EI or EQ)? My answer is everyone. In fact, I think it is something that should be taught throughout school. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a stand-alone course, though it certainly could be. EI could definitely be included in courses for communication, psychology, sociology, and definitely be a part of nursing and medical curricula. How can anyone effectively work with people and not have stellar EI.

Daniel Goleman’s theory of EQ is as follows:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”

Goleman also states that “Great leadership works through the emotions.”

(Goleman, Boyatzyis, & McKee. Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. 2013 )

What is the process for learning about EI? As with many things, it starts with self; Self-awareness and Self-management followed by Social Awareness and Relationship management.

I found a test online that can help you discover your EI and begin your journey. This test only gives you an idea of where you are, and it is not the full test. I encourage you to check this one or another one out.

Note that the first item of EI is Self-awareness. This is straight -forward, if you aren’t aware of your emotions, you won’t be able to change how you respond in various situations. Once you are self-aware you are in a position to self-manage, I also refer to this as self-leadership. Self-awareness is the foundation of all of the rest. Becoming self-aware also helps you to develop Social Awareness. Having paid attention to yourself, your emotions, and your reactions in various situations, you will be more likely to be able to notice how others react or respond to a variety of emotional events. Empathy comes into play in this area: being aware of what others are experiencing. This doesn’t mean you want to respond to someone going through a traumatic event with “I know how you feel”. That isn’t empathy. Empathy is understanding where that person is coming from. You understand the pain, grief, and sadness being experienced. Developing these three areas naturally leads to Relationship management. Our lives are filled with relationships.

Why does this make a difference to anyone, or in this case, to leaders? I want my boss, coach, guide, or anyone in a leadership role to have these qualities; to be Emotionally Intelligent.

A leader with a high EQ would be likely to be much better at inspiring and leading teams. Hopefully, an EI leader will guide and assist in the development of the other leaders in the organization. There can be more than one leader. We all have different skills and abilities in which we can lead. A socially aware leader will know when to call on others.

You do not have to be a leader to become more EI, it is worthwhile for everyone. Synchronicity occurred today: I am once again taking part in a research study and one of the lessons today was about the brain – our caveman brain and our frontal cortex. These are the areas involved in our reactions. Too much to go into here. But watch for my next blog on our caveman brain and our frontal cortex.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Whew! It Isn’t COVID What I’ve Learned

I’ve had a sore throat, runny nose, head and body aches, and have felt crappy for almost a week now. I canceled two medical appointments because I didn’t want to spread anything. I got tested for COVID – negative. A big sigh of relief.I thought about this and gave myself a bit of a kick for not listening to my intuition. I let my guard down and eased up on COVID precautions: I didn’t wear my mask if everyone had both their jabs. I went out a bit and saw a few people, I thought I was safe.

I haven’t had a cold in two years. Before COVID I was getting chemo. I completed chemo in February 2020, the beginning of COVID. During chemo, I was isolating a lot because my immune system was knocked out. So, the restrictions were merely a continuation for me, a bit more stringent as I hadn’t worn a mask, I just hadn’t gone out.

I concluded, the restrictions for COVID had aided in my not getting my usual frequent colds. I have believed in and practiced good hand hygiene for many years – that is what comes from working for years in an ICU.

I have a couple of autoimmune disorders that make it a bit more difficult to fight off infections and I’m considered a senior citizen (no one cares that I don’t feel like I’m old). Though I remain in remission from my cancer I still choose to be careful to not catch whatever is going around.

As we all wait for the restrictions to be over, so we don’t need to worry about getting sick, I am thinking of backtracking. I intend to go back to wearing my mask when in groups, if I can’t maintain a distance of approximately 2-meters when shopping (though I don’t like shopping and rarely do it). If I am sick, I will stay home, without visitors. I will continue to cover my mouth when I cough or sneeze – remember the phrase – sneeze in your sleeve.

I hope the days of going to work when you have “just a cold” are gone. If an employer expects someone to work when they have a cold and the employee doesn’t dare to go against that, I hope the employer is supplying masks for everyone and supplying hand sanitizer. Remember to wash your hands.

I hope the cleaning practices that have been learned will be continued. Maybe we can have a winter with less flu – oh yes, get a flu shot. The world in which we live is a dirty place. But we do know how to clean, make soap and water a priority.

A Closer Look at Following Your Heart

An Exerpt from HeartMath®

Increasingly, people are taking a closer look at what the age-old term “following your heart “means, and more are practicing heart-based living. The term heart-based living is a simple phrase which suggest that we are including our hearts’ intuitive feeling, along with our minds, when making choices and decisions that shape our life’s direction and happiness. Following your heart is learning to discern the wisdom of your heart feelings and then stepping into it. HeartMath’s research and tools were created to make this process easier.

Heart-based living includes practicing the qualities of the heart, such as love, compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, cooperation and more of these similar qualities. Being heart-based does not require being religious or belonging to any particular spiritual path. It is an intelligent way of living that would reduce most of the stress, separation and greed which drives the major problems that keep us from getting along with each other.

If you would like to learn more about Heart-Based Living and Following Your Heart, connect with me and we can chat. Book an appointment at a time that works for you at https://calendly.com/fromtheheartwithdr-elaine

Also, watch for additional HeartMathR and leadership information in my blogs.