By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT
Most of us are seeking happiness, love, peace, joy… and let’s not forget freedom from the internal turmoil that so often plagues us. The heart, both physical and figurative, bears the burden of our emotional traumas and everyday stressors. The emotional and physical connection between body and mind was for many years considered figurative; however we now know that this is much more than a metaphor. What occurs in our emotional world most certainly affects and often manifests itself in our physical body.
Many of us are suffering the pain of disconnection from our hearts. This disconnection often maintains emotional pain, eating disorders and other addictive processes. Reconnecting with the heart, with our authentic inner nature and capacity for love, may be the doorway to what we are truly seeking.
Ultimately, the heart is relationship-centered and attention to it opens space for healing- with others and oneself.
Let’s take a little journey together to discover more about the heart and what reconnection with it means in our daily lives.
The Heart is Amazing
Stick with me here with some research….it will be worth it!
The American Heart Association says, “A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. These reactions prepare you to deal with the situation — the “fight or flight” response”. (reference link below)
The American Psychological Association tells us that prolonged stress can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. In fact, the way we respond to stress actually can make just as much as an impact on our hearts as smoking. Studies show that happier people have healthier levels of fibrinogen and cortisol in their blood, making them less susceptible to heart disease, while people with depression are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular issues. In fact, researchers are finding that psychological interventions can prevent cardiac events and lengthen the life span of an individual! There is even something called cardiac psychology that focuses on the link and reciprocal relationship of the heart and mind.
This compelling and exciting information from the research show us that the emotional heart is connected to the physical heart and what we do to positively impact disconnection and increase reconnection will have an affect on not only our inner life and passions, but also on the health of our body.
This is an incredibly complex but exciting idea that what we feel emotionally and think about mentally and also manifests as feel as a pulse or ache throughout our body, centering in our chest- our heart center. Think about it for a minute…do you remember the last time your hearts started beating faster (physically) in anticipation of something either exciting or frightening (emotionally)? That is the felt sense of the link between physical heart and our emotional brain.
Let’s consider the heart…
Think for a moment about all the ways we describe it:
Broken Heart, Aching Heart, Loving Heart, Courageous Heart, Heart of Gold, Warm-hearted, Kind-hearted, Cold-Hearted, Wholehearted…..and the list goes on.
Many of these descriptions indicate some state or expression of love or lack of love. The heart, of course, is often associated with love (think Valentine’s Day) and we know that with love comes great joy and also great pain. In fact, I have heard it said that love is both grit and velvet.
Love can certainly be experienced and felt in so many different ways. We use the word to describe various states and aspects of life such as a strong affection for a human being- both familial, friendship, and romantic, some act we enjoy, or a thing that moves us. We say “I love him”, “I love that song”, “I love to dance”, “I love crispy pizza”, “I love the smell of pine trees” and the list can go on…but I think you get the idea.
Love accepted can feel spectacular, euphoric, exciting. Love rejected can be accompanied by a searing pain, shame, and a deep ache or depression. A loss of love or of a vital connection with either another human being or…as I am suggesting here, with oneself can certainly induce stress in the heart. We know it by that pang in our chest, the physical felt sense of emotional loss of love and connectedness- the deep ache of loneliness expressed through the both the mind and body.
In yogic traditions, the heart chakra is at the center of the body, with three chakras or energy centers above and three below. It is called “anahata” which translates to “unhurt” or “unstruck”. This is an interesting idea because this implies that underneath hurts or broken hearts, is a spiritual connection to pure love, or the divine, or God, or a higher power or whatever makes most sense to you. In yoga, breathing and various postures are done to open up the heart chakra or heart center to fuller expressions of love, compassion and connection with oneself and others. When the heart is closed off, it is susceptible to anger, jealousy, and hatred toward oneself or other and as we saw in the research, to physical disease.
Reconnecting with the heart at a deeper level assumes that there has been a disconnection somewhere along the way.
It is my bias that most of us go through life struggling to both BE connected and STAY connected to our hearts, to what we love, to our vulnerability, and to what moves us.
We experience pressure from culture to be something we aren’t.
We live fast paced lifestyles and function from our heads, neglecting the language of the heart.
We overuse our minds and underuse our hearts.
So what are some signs that you might be disconnected from your heart?
- Feeling disconnected from life or like you can’t connect to other people
- Feeling a lack of wholeness or that some part of you is missing or inaccessible
- Feeling low self-worth or insecurity
- Feeling stuck, unable to make changes or not knowing what changes to make
- Feeling a sense of numbness or disconnection from your own body
- Feeling a draw to a relationship that has been unhealthy for you
- Feeling urges to engage in non-life sustaining behaviors
The disconnection from the heart is often fear-based and can lead to a defensive posture in the world. The fear-based reactivity of the mind often blocks the messages of the heart.
The heart knows the truth about us- the light and the dark. This can be terrifying and so often we close ourselves off to our heart and inner sense of knowing, but what might happen if we let our heart expand and become part of the fabric of our life? At this encounter of lost love towards ourselves, we may experience resistance to connecting with our heart. We may realize that fear has led us to a defensive position, not only against getting close to others, and allowing vulnerability (which will be talked about in Part 2 of this series), but fear has also kept us from getting connected to ourselves.
Remember the research from before? It already is a part of us…so what if we consciously included it?
A Practical Example for Daily Life
So, you might wonder, how do we hear what is in our hearts? If we think about the heart as the seat of wisdom and intuition with its original state as a place of pure love, then under the pain, and fear it is almost like we have a second mind in the heart- one that makes decisions based on love for self, others, and the world.
In order to “reconnect” to our inner world, we have to “disconnect” from the outside world with the constant barrage of messages from technology.
For example, think about when we have a big decision to make- something that has really been causing us turmoil or angst. We just aren’t sure what to do and it might be keeping us up at night, causing a stress response in our body. We might make pros and cons list to help us through the process. Now, these can be incredibly useful; however they are also a function of the head and often do not include the heart.
Here is a practical tool that someone once shared with me of how to access the mind-heart in the decision-making process. I want to pass it on to you as well because it has made an incredible difference in my life with making really difficult decisions.
When you have a challenging decision to make and your head is spinning, ruminating on what to do, asking what is the best thing, running around asking the opinions of others, googling for the answer and most of all fearful of the wrong outcome- a way to make a real impact and difference in this experience is to bring it down into the heart center of the body and intentionally include your heart in the process.
Just as we might ask a friend seeking advice, “What is your heart telling you?”, this is a way to embody decision-making as a heart exercise and ask ourselves what our heart is saying. While the heart is an actual organ it is also a metaphor for the center of our being.
You could use pillows for this exercise or two blankets folded up- each one representing a different decision. Then write on two different pieces of paper each potential decision and place it in front of the marked area. Sit in one of the areas, allow your breath to drop down from your chest into your belly, and begin to imagine yourself having made that decision, and really embodying what it might feel like to have made that choice. Where do you feel it in your body? What does it feel like in your body? Does it have a color? Is there an image? How does this affect the beat of your heart? How do you imagine yourself in the future with that decision? Sit there for at least 5 minutes in that decision-space, with your eyes closed if it feels safe. Then get up and move to the next decision-space and repeat the process.
This technique helps us embody reconnection with the heart.
In exploring what our heart has to say, we may once again encounter the disconnection from our hearts. We may discover the areas where the chord of love been broken, possibly in relationship to another, but usually we are more aware of that in our consciousness. It is more likely that we will come face to face with the disconnect that exists toward ourselves- the internal disconnection with our heart. Most often we struggle the most with extending love inward, to our own existence, shortcomings, and imperfections.
Making an effort to live consciously with the “heart in mind” means that we must continually remind ourselves of the connection between body, mind, and spirit- and like with the decision-making exercise, including all parts in our daily actions.
Stay Tuned for Part Two in the Conversations with the Heart Series: Vulnerability and the Courageous Heart