Cardiologist Jonathan Fisher explores some of the science behind the mind-heart
connection and offers three steps toward minding your heart (as in the physical organ).
Have you ever meditated with your doctor in the exam room? The answer is probably a resounding “no.”
For many of my own heart patients, however, it’s now part of the routine.
You may wonder why a cardiologist is teaching his patients to meditate. While many of us tend to think of our emotions, or meditation for that matter, as only affecting our mind, research shows that these “mental” states do come with very real, physical outcomes.
Try to remember the last time you or a loved one felt stuck in a mood or unpleasant state of mind, like anxiety, sadness, depression, loneliness, or hopelessness. From a medical perspective, the problem is that these states of mind don’t just feel bad. They also make us sick. The toxic effects of emotional stress (i.e. distress) are well known, and affect just about every human organ system.
What Stress Is Doing to Your Heart
As a cardiologist, I see the harmful effects of stress on the heart on a daily basis. Acute sudden or chronic repetitive stress can show up as:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Coronary artery disease
- A weakened heart muscle
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- And even heart failure
What if we could begin to heal our hearts and those of our patients without rushing to a drug or procedure? What if part of the root cause of at least 75% of all visits to healthcare providers in the US (stress) could be managed with safe and effective techniques? And for free?
It certainly sounds too good to be true, but the evidence connecting stress to cardiovascular disease, and the evidence demonstrating the heart-protective effects of mind-body practices (mindfulness, meditation, active relaxation techniques, mindful movement practices, and of course proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise) has been steadily building over the last 40 years.
Can Meditation Protect Your Heart?
When I began to discover the burgeoning science of the mind-heart connection, and shared the early data in a 2012 hospital-wide medical conference entitled “Mindfulness and the Heart” I had little idea of what was to come.
Most cardiologists I’ve spoken with are surprised to learn that in 2017 the American Heart Association published “Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.” In this meta-analysis, the authors summarize the research supporting the conclusion that meditation reduces cardiovascular risk, including research showing favorable outcomes for:
- Smoking cessation
- Blood pressure reduction
- Preventing a second heart attack or stroke
- Psychological and physiological stress measures
- Strengthening brain pathways responsible for self-regulation and healthy habit change
- Application as an adjunct to guideline-directed cardiovascular risk reduction
On January 25th, 2021, the American Heart Association published a scientific statement entitled “Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection.” The authors write that for clinicians delivering health care, the focus “has been on the specific physical condition rather than the patient as a whole. Less attention has been given to psychological health and how that can contribute to physical health and disease. However, there is now an increasing appreciation of how psychological health can contribute not only in a negative way to cardiovascular disease (CVD) but also in a positive way to better cardiovascular health and reduced cardiovascular risk.” As a growing body of research has uncovered all the ways in which our body and mind are connected, it’s become more evident that a healthy state of mind may be as vitally important as physical habits like eating unprocessed foods and engaging in regular exercise. When our mental and emotional health is off balance, our cardiovascular health is negatively affected. In order to protect our physical hearts we need to take time to nurture our emotional heart by working on mastering our stress response and cultivating a sense of emotional well-being.
How to Start Minding Our Hearts
Here are a few simple first steps we can all take toward both paying attention to our mental health, and “minding our hearts”:
1) Learn more: Read the analyses and conclusions from the two American Heart Association statements (linked above). Find a book, website, or app that supports self-care, relaxation, or mindfulness, whether you’re brand new to any (or all) of these practices, or you’re continuing on your path of learning about mindfulness.
2) Practice: You can do this right now. Sit quietly for one minute, just noticing your breath, paying attention to thoughts as they come and go.Kindly note when your thoughts are pleasant or unpleasant, stressful or calm.
3) Act: Commit to one activity each day that helps calm your mind and relax your body. Find what works for you. Try something new. Have fun with the process of self-care and discovery.
What do you think? Do you believe it’s possible to “mind our hearts”? Which practice works best for you? Connect and share your thoughts—I’d love to learn from you. And share this information with someone you care about who either a) has a mind or b) has a heart.