Beating Stress with the Heart
The Heart. From ancient spirituality to modern day science, an object of much fascination and focus.
Georg Feuerstein (a German Indologist specialised in philosophy and Yoga) tells us that “in many spiritual traditions the ‘heart’ refers to a psycho-spiritual structure, more than a physical organ. It is seen as the seat of the transcendental Self, called hrid, or Hridaya”. And even in everyday life we see the heart having a special reference. In many languages for instance we say ‘to know something by heart’ meaning to know something completely. Why don’t we say ‘to know something by brain’?
There is a certain intuition of the heart being a place of center, not just at a spiritual level, but also at the level of our body and emotions. Coming out of the mind and into the heart brings a sense of harmony and balance.
Personally, I can completely affirm this. In my previous career, I remember happily stating that I was ‘married to my job’. There is of course nothing wrong with finding purpose and meaning in the work that we do, but what I was not aware of was the extent to which the continuous stress, many long hours and the very frequent travel was slowly impacting my health. Common colds became flues, always a simmering feeling of fatigue, an increasing lack of joy, eventually accumulating in a burn out. Working with the heart was one of the main ways in which I was able to regain balance in my life. How?
Before I go into specifics about this, we need to understand what stress really is. According to the father of stress research Hans Selye: ‘stress is the response of the body to any demand made upon it’.
It is hence not the actual stress itself which creates distress, it is the way we respond to it. Ultimately the way we perceive and experience life is what influences our feeling of suffering or happiness. This is called ‘resilience’: the ability to prepare, recover and adapt in the face of challenge. The more resilient we are the more we can easily bounce back after challenging situations.
On a biological level, the main system in our body which influences our resilience is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS consists of two sides: an activating (‘sympathetic’- SNS) side, responsible for raising our heart rate when facing a stressor and increasing blood pressure to ignite the muscles, and a relaxing (‘parasympathetic’- PSNS) side, effectively slowing everything back down (including the heart rate). We need both to function in life. Ideally, these two systems are balanced, however sometimes this ability gets impaired.
In current day society we face an excess of overstimulation. The mobility in our lives and the constant streams of information keep our system charged and often in a constant state of activation (SNS). The ANS loses its flexibility and ability to easily regulate itself. Our nervous system remains in activated mode, heart rate stays up, muscles tense and it becomes harder to ‘bounce back’. This can lead to issues such as anxiety, high blood pressure, sleeping or digestive problems and much more.
Just ‘calm down’ or ‘try to be mindful’ will be very difficult with a highly stimulated body and mind. So how do we get out of our heads and still support this regulating ability of the body?
We come back to our center, the Heart! Not only did scientists find that there are more neural pathways running from the heart to the brain than vice versa, they also found that we can actually quite simply influence our heart rate. When the heart beat moves flexibly between fast and slow rates, between the active and relax mode of our ANS, our resilience is optimized.
Two things were found to be greatly effective here. First the breath, promoting heart awareness and second: invoking positive emotions. How does this work?
‘Heart awareness and Heart breathing’:
With the eyes open or closed bring the awareness into the heart area, imagining that the breath is moving in and out through the heart.
Try and extend the breath, if it helps even counting five seconds as you inhale and five seconds as you exhale
This alone will already have a strong effect and can be done even while in a (difficult) conversation. If you have more time to focus your attention you can add a third step:
Actively invoking a positive emotion in the body. Allow this then to be amplified with every breath.
I can highly vouch for the effectiveness of these simple methods, which helped me a lot to recover after my burn out, and even today they remain my go-to in times of increased stress.
Leaving you with wise words from the great Sufi mystic and poet Rumi:
“The only beauty that lasts is the beauty of the Heart.”