Strategies for Better Heart-Brain Communication
Your heart has a mind of its own… Kinda. While it may sound cliche to “follow your heart,” there may be truth in the phrase.
It turns out, according to recent research, that there is ongoing communication between the heart and brain that has a heavy influence on how we think and feel.
The Heart-Brain Connection
We’ve had proof that the heart communicates with the brain in significant ways as early as the 1960s. In 1991, Dr. J Andrew Armour coined the term “heart brain”, describing the heart as a complex intrinsic nervous system that is somewhat a brain of its own.
Research in the psychocardiology and neurocardiology field still has tons to learn, though consistencies in studies tell us quite a bit about the heart-brain connection.
Here’s what we currently know about the “heart brain”:
- The heart starts beating before our brain has been formed
- The emotional brain develops far before the logical brain
- The heart has its own complex nervous system that is independent of the brain
- The hearts nervous system is in constant communication with the brain
- Signals from the heart synchronize with and direct many bodily systems
- The heart makes many decisions on its own
Because of the early development of the heart and emotional brain, stress and emotions seem to have a strong connection.
This is to no surprise as we have known for decades that things like smoking, hypertension, PTSD, and emotional stress are closely linked risk factors for heart disease and strokes.
How the Heart Processes Emotions
In stressful situations, our bodies release adrenaline in a fight-or-flight response. This adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure and also signals blood platelets to release neuropeptide Y which can obstruct arteries in the heart.
Even emotional stress, such as a breakup, can cause abnormal contractions in the left ventricle of the heart — causing (quite literally) a broken heart.
Strategies for a healthy, happy “heart brain”
How do we leverage what we know about heart-brain communication? After all, controlling the thoughts of our minds can prove difficult enough. So, can you really control how your heart communicates with the rest of the body and mind?
To some extent yes. While the heart is an autonomous organ, we can take care of it in a number of ways.
It turns out, many things that make us smile and more appreciative of life also make our hearts happier.
Try the strategies below to make the best of your internal heart-brain communication.
Relaxation techniques can have a surprising positive cardiovascular effect. There are a number of techniques that can achieve serotonin-boosted relaxation. A number of popular relaxation activities include mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises.
Yoga has actually proven to be a mood stabilizer and stress reducer by raising levels of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. And both Yoga and meditative practices have shown to increase serotonin — a crucial neurotransmitter in regulating mood.
Another technique is making a subtle change to the way you think about and talk to yourself. That internal monologue you hear all day makes a difference in how you feel.
Be mindful of negative thoughts and negative emotions; then channel positive energy to transform those thoughts into positive ones.
Comic Relief and Laughter
It doesn’t take a neurologist to know that happiness is a common result of laughter.
When we laugh, our body releases endorphins, which in turn releases nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is known to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Laughter also loosens blood vessels and can lower signs of aging within them.
Exercise is another great way to stimulate endorphin release, as well as other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. If you’re looking for stress relief, there are no better ways to cool down to exercise and crack a few jokes.
Listening to “Dope” Music
Ever listened to a song and got chills? That pleasurable feeling is a consequence of dopamine release when listening to or anticipating your favorite music.
Listening to music has been known to reduce anxiety. This may be linked to the nostalgic connection music often has in our lives. Our favorite songs are often neurologically linked to positive feelings from our younger years when our brains are still in rapid development.
There does seem to be a correlation between what type of music is more mood-boosting than others. Studies have shown that upbeat music is proven to improve happiness in as little as two weeks, whereas non-positive-sounding music does not have the same effect.
A hug a day
… Keeps the doctor away!
Physical encounters like hugging or other forms of touch are known to release the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin.
Oxytocin lowers blood pressure and heart rate. It has also been shown to directly prevent heart tissue death (which results in heart failure). Human studies have even shown intranasal oxytocin to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve mental stress test scores. It even showed to reduce chronic pain.
Taking Care of the Heart Brain
Taking care of the mind and body is always a good idea. We tend to either focus on either our mental health or our physical health, typically not both at the same time. And rather than react to a time of needed change, it’s always better to act proactively and preventatively.
Science has made it clear that taking care of the heart and brain are among the most important things we can do to prolong our lives and make for a happier self.
- Miller M. (2019). Emotional Rescue: The Heart-Brain Connection. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science, 2019, cer-05-19.
- Armour, A. J., Dr. (n.d.). Chapter 01: Heart-Brain Communication. Retrieved August 29, 2021, from https://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/heart-brain-communication/
- HeartMath Institute. (2015, March 03). Heart Intelligence. Retrieved August 29, 2021, from https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/the-math-of-heartmath/heart-intelligence/
- Halaris, A., MD. (2018, September 20). Psychocardiology: Understanding the Heart-Brain Connection: Part 1. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/psychocardiology-understanding-heart-brain-connection-part-1
- Silvani Alessandro, Calandra-Buonaura Giovanna, Dampney Roger A. L. and Cortelli Pietro 2016 Brain–heart interactions: physiology and clinical implications Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A.3742015018120150181
- Yuna L. Ferguson & Kennon M. Sheldon (2013) Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8:1, 23-33, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2012.747000