Did you know that it’s possible to die from a broken heart? Extreme emotional stress, like losing a loved one, can cause inflammation around the heart that impacts the body in the same way a heart attack does. Emotional trauma is becoming recognized as a significant contributor to disease.
This is why it is so important to find ways to calm the brain, and de-stress, after significant life shocks and traumatic experiences. Come with us as we explore the profound connection between your brain, your emotions, and your health.
The Fight or Flight Response
The limbic system - made up of various parts of the brain including the amygdala and hypothalamus - is responsible for the emotions we feel. When you get angry, scared, or sexually aroused, your limbic system is making these feelings possible.
The word “limbic” comes from the Latin word “limbus,” meaning border (because the limbic system sits on the border of two major parts of the brain, the neocortex (thinking brain) and the brainstem (reptilian or reactionary brain).
Let’s look at one of the most powerful human emotions: fear. When you witness something scary, like a bus speeding towards you while you’re crossing the street, that sensory information is passed through your optic nerve to the thalamus in your brain.
Passing the Message On….
The thalamus filters sensory information from your environment into two broad categories - what you should pay attention to, and what you should ignore. The important information is then sent to other parts of the brain, so your body can respond appropriately.
When the information about a potential danger gets to your amygdala, it sends signals to your hypothalamus to trigger the release of hormones to create physiological changes in your body. In our example of a bus speeding towards you, the amygdala senses danger and alerts your hypothalamus, which releases various hormones associated with the “fight or flight” response.
These hormones create physical changes, like a release of adrenaline, an increase in heart rate and breathing rate, and constriction of the muscles. These changes empower you to sprint away. But if the danger isn’t tangible (e.g. you can’t run away from it) then they also contribute to inflammation, particularly in the blood vessels, leading to the increased risk of heart problems and reducing your immune system’s ability to look after your body.
The hormonal changes are designed to allow your body to quickly respond to the danger and get out of the way. But prolonged exposure to stress impairs our ability to react appropriately. We become accustomed to fear (it changes the brain) and even small things trigger the same response.
Big Stress & Your Heart
Studies have shown that people with anxiety and elevated stress levels also have increased activity in their amygdala, which corresponds to an increased risk of heart disease and physical wear and tear on the body. Prolonged stress causes your body to age prematurely.
Since your body’s fight or flight increases heart rate, and blood pressure, it puts an additional strain on the heart. After stressful events, your body usually calms down and returns all of its processes - including heart rate - to normal.
But if the source of stress doesn’t go away, or the shocking event is too much to process (like losing a loved one), the heart remains under pressure and it can sustain long-lasting physical damage. In extreme situations of great stress, the arteries around the heart stay inflamed, which can lead to it failing altogether, resulting in death.
The Consequences of Stress
Prolonged exposure to events that cause deep fear increases the risk of multiple health issues. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Digestive issues
- Impaired memory
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart disease
- Sleep issues
- Weight gain
In the words of one wise woman, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Life is stressful enough, but we do ourselves (and our hearts) a serious disservice when we neglect our emotional wellbeing. Taking care of your emotional state is not self-centered, it’s a necessary part of good overall health.
The chain reaction of hormonal and physiological changes in the body that result from fear, depression, and other chronically-experienced negative emotions highlights the importance of taking conscious control over our emotional state.
Broken Heart Syndrome
A broken heart can be a killer! Takotsubo syndrome is the name given to a condition where the muscles of the heart become weak after significant life stresses. Emotional stresses and significant adverse life events can weaken the heart. These include:
- The death of a loved one
- The threat of a loved one dying
- The process of grieving and mourning
- Being in danger or having your life threatened
- Losing status (for example, being fired from a job or ostracized from a community)
The sadness from experiencing the death of a loved one, such as a spouse or child, multiplied the risk of death in the surviving relative seven times. Experiencing chronic anger and treating other people negatively is also known to increase the risk of heart disease.
Negative emotions can have a damaging (and potentially lethal) effect on the heart and other organs (as the heart supplies blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the whole body). So what can you do about it?
Reducing Stress to Protect Your Health
A study on people in cardiac rehabilitation who underwent stress management training (SMT) found that they had fewer cardiac events (subsequent events that cause damage to the heart muscles after a heart attack) than patients in standard cardiac rehabilitation.
Fortunately, there are some simple but highly effective ways to counteract the heart-damaging effects of stress:
movement is one of the best, free, readily engageable activities to reduce stress and the impact of negative emotions on the mind and body. Exercise - from walking to jogging to swimming and cycling - encourages blood flow and oxygen throughout the blood vessels and heart.
Engaging in regular exercise also increases resilience to stress and improves heart rate variability (the higher your HRV the more adaptable your heart is to stress.) Since stress (and the physical changes it causes) is designed to make us run away, it stands to reason that this is one of the best ways to dissipate the hormones, it’s like completing the cycle.
Meditation reduces stress by redirecting your attention away from the multitude of demands of the external world to the quietness within you. It overrides the subconscious triggers (which have been programmed in by prolonged stress) and consciously communicates with the body that all is well, no need to feel fear or other stress-inducing emotions.
A great deal of research has been done on how strong social connections lead to an increased lifespan. It’s also been firmly established through scientific inquiry that having strong social networks reduces stress and the risk of heart disease. Spending time with romantic partners, family, friends, or social groups exercises your social muscle and reinforces a positive mindset.
Being in the company of people you love releases the hormone oxytocin, which acts like a master hormone, overriding all the others. Oxytocin re-calibrates your entire body system with a sense of peace, it cancels out stress immediately and in the long run.
This is another way to get oxytocin flowing. Getting a massage, listening to music, being in nature, or treating yourself to something nice all support this self-loving feeling. Saying I love you to yourself in the mirror triggers the release of this anti-inflammatory hormone which floods the brain with the emotional reset that you need to reduce stress. How do you show yourself you care?
Being sexually active is like exercise plus love! It burns off the excess hormones, releases multiple mood-boosting neurotransmitters, and builds up oxytoxin. How about that for a quadruple-whammy of stress-busting adaptations to your physiology?
While antioxidants can’t directly reduce stress, they can protect the brain from the damage it causes. They give you more mental space to think clearly and focus on what to do next. Since stress creates neural inflammation it can be hard to figure out what to do to solve your problems. Herbal antioxidants give you the space to soothe your frazzled brain and make the necessary changes in your life to prevent stress from building up, helping you emotionally, and practically figure out what to do.
Emotional and Physical Health
The body and mind are contained in a single body, but we have learned to treat emotions separately from our physical health. 80% of the information flowing between the body and brain (via the vagus nerve) is actually going from the body to the brain.
When the body is inflamed (from diet, toxins, malnutrition, and unprocessed emotions) it sends signals to the brain, which interprets them into a ‘story’ you experience as an emotion, like fear or anxiety. The brain is a ‘meaning making machine’ so inflammation and even sensations, like a racing heart, get confused when brain clarity is damped down by inflammation and toxins (like heavy metals).
Physical stress in the body causes emotional stress in the brain, which causes physical stress in the body. You need to break this cycle to think and feel better. You can break the cycle of stress, emotions, and inflammation. You can nourish, detox, and relax the brain and body.
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The selected herbs nourish your brain and body, helping you feel energized and relaxed, calmer and clearer, able to follow your heart, and plan how to live your best, stress-free life.