Have you ever found yourself saying—and meaning it—something like, “I know it in my heart of hearts” or “deep down in my heart”? At times, our hearts are full of love or grief … or is it the brain where these sensations reside? Spoiler alert: it’s both.
It’s a dance, but who’s leading?
“When you talk about ‘deep down in my heart,’ you’re referring to feelings,” says Catherine Cloutier, registered clinical counsellor in Kamloops, BC.
On the other hand, if you ask someone how they feel about something, she says, you’ll learn their thoughts. The heart and the mind work together, but every person is unique when it comes to personality, life experiences, the way we think and feel.
The nitty-gritty of a two-way street
However, there’s a part of the brain-heart combo that is the same in all humans. The autonomic nervous system of the brain, composed of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response), helps the heart keep its rhythm, while the parasympathetic nervous system, which is doing the opposite, facilitates calm activities classified under rest-and-digest.
The cardiovascular system, though, keeps brain functions optimal. Your heartbeats (100,000 or so per day) supply the brain with oxygen and nutrients.
Better yet, a multi-way highway
Our emotions influence our heart rhythm. For example, negative emotions can lead to irregular heartbeats, or atrial fibrillation, which in turn can increase stress levels. For anyone who thought that having a broken heart is just a figure of speech, studies have shown that immediately after the death of a loved one, the risk of a heart attack is increased by up to 50 percent.
Reading our bodies from inside out is called interoception. Through interoception we “read” sensations such as hunger, thirst, or pain, as well as heartbeats, while we also process emotions.
The more adept you are at deciphering the beatings of your heart, the higher your intuitive ability and the better you are at controlling your intense emotions. Lower awareness means you’re more likely to see the glass half empty.
Keep on smiling
When you feel like crying but you’re encouraged to smile instead—should you? It sounds counterintuitive to what we think the heart would want, but it’s a healthy approach, Cloutier says, if it doesn’t block you from processing things you need to attend to.
“Smiling is an excellent tool for coping, as long as you can decide when to use it, in order to cope with various situations in your life,” Cloutier adds.
Changing cognition can help lift your mood when you suffer from anxiety or from seasonal or mood disorders. But trauma requires a different kind of processing, because avoidance through a fake good mood can affect you in the long run, she explains.
When people maintain a positive outlook on life, the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases by up to 25 percent.
Everything is connected
A third of all dementia cases can be attributed to vascular factors, such as arteriosclerosis (stiffening arteries with age) and atherosclerosis (fatty plaque buildup in arteries). Blood pressure matters too. When high (due to stress), it damages blood vessels and can cause microinjuries to the brain, which becomes a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. A healthy lifestyle, stress management included, can reduce all of these risk factors and keep your brain sharp.
One person to rule them all (that’s you)
You can’t avoid stress, but you can choose how to deal with it. The body’s response to stress via the sympathetic nervous system involves the release of glucose and hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, all of which can be damaging to the cardiovascular and digestive system too, in the long run, says Cloutier.
Exercising at least three times a week, outside ideally, is a good counteractive measure. This will help burn out fuel that isn’t actually needed by the body but that’s released into the bloodstream when your sympathetic system is activated. Just living in greener areas comes with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and lower levels of sympathetic activation.
Adding a parasympathetic nervous system trigger for relaxation will tell your brain (and your body) that there’s no imminent danger and that normal activities like sleep and digestion can resume, says Cloutier. These can be singular focused activities, such as crossword puzzles, mindfulness exercises, or meditation, or whatever helps you get calm.
The basic plot of the brain-heart story is written in our anatomy, and it’s nothing short of extraordinary—but we’re the ones adding the chapters as we go. That’s both empowering and a bit magical too.