Sunday, January 15, 2012

Stress and the heart

Stress is commonplace, especially in these challenging times. Repeated bouts of stress can have lasting effects on the body. Brief interludes of relaxation help the body recover from stress. The human heart, the seat of emotion, is Ever in MOTION. Due to this perpetual motion of the heart day and night, the effects of repeated bouts of stress on the heart may impact our longevity. The heart has spare capacity to increase its workload in times of stress. This happens through certain chemical messengers, such as adrenaline, that signal the heart muscle to work harder. The heart has plenty of receptors, or parking bays, for these messengers. Just as a factory may increase its production in response to a demand by increasing its workforce and by expanding the assembly line, the human heart is a factory that has the ability to increase production of a vital product, oxygen rich blood. Chemical messengers like adrenaline are the workforce that drive the heart to pump more blood to meet the higher metabolic demands placed on the body by stress. An easily quantifiable measure of this increased workload is a higher heart rate and a higher blood pressure. Just like an earthquake that starts deep underground and damages buildings on the surface many miles from its epicenter, this higher blood pressure that originates in the heart may cause damage in other organs such as the brain potentially resulting in a stroke. 

There are many ways to decrease the workload of the heart. Physicians frequently employ pharmaceutical agents that block chemicals such as adrenaline from getting to its receptors in the heart muscle. These medications are used to protect a heart that has been damaged by a heart attack. Another method of deflecting the effects of stress and adrenaline on the heart is to divert this energy to other muscle groups, such as those in the arms and legs by resorting to physical exercise in times of stress. Medications and exercise don’t necessarily affect the production of the chemical byproducts of stress and emotion.

If the heart is the seat of this emotion and stress, the mind is the source. Each individual has his or her own method of coping with stressful thoughts originating in the mind. One drawback of these individual mental coping mechanisms is that we have to constantly evolve and change them as the situation demands while the mind continues to churn in the background. Controlling one’s mind by constant mental effort is difficult and tiresome. An easier method takes advantage of the close link between the breath and the mind. Just as a small syringe full of potent medicine has a systemic effect in curing an infection in any part of the body, simply watching one’s breath and taking in slow deep measured breaths has a cleansing effect on the entire mind. One has to breathe whether the mind is calm or agitated. When stressful thoughts pass through the mind, focusing on the mind leads to the production of chemical messengers that overwork the heart, whereas focusing on the breath and observing it may slow and rest the heart.