We’ve all heard the phrase ‘it’s all in the mind’, and it’s often applied to mental health issues. But in recent years we’ve started to realise that our thoughts are connected to other physical processes. In particular, there has been a growing awareness that our hearts and minds are intimately linked.
Mental health: All in the Mind?
Often when people think of mental health they think of iconic psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud, who had a very mind-centric approach to psychological disorders. One of the reasons mental health has not been taken as seriously as other, purely ‘physical’, health conditions is the idea that as individuals we have total control over what we think, and that our thoughts are not connected to our bodies. We now know this is not the case, and there is a greater emphasis as seeing mind and body as interrelated.
In the past, a sharp distinction was drawn between, say, being depressed, and having a broken leg. One was considered to be more ‘real’ than the other, because one was a physical condition rooted in the body, and the other was supposedly all in the mind.
But in recent years a lot of work has been done to dispel the idea that mental health problems are ‘all in the mind’. In fact, we’re starting to realise the links between the mind and the rest of our bodies. When we look at the connection between the heart and mental health things get particularly interesting.
Physical and Mental Health Are Closely Linked
There is a direct relationship between physical and mental health, and it goes both ways. Poor physical health can lead to poor mental health, and poor mental health can lead to poor physical health.
The effects of this can be profound. People who experience higher levels of anxiety and depression are more likely to die from cancer, according to a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). And people with severe mental health problems are more likely to have long term physical conditions.
Physical health and mental health are not just linked, they mutually reinforce each other. I discuss this further in my Emotional Health article. A study in the journal of Social Science and Medicine concluded that “better physical and mental health status, therefore, leads to more physical activity which in return has a positive association with better mental health and physical health.”
The Link Between Mental Health And The Heart
Meditation and mindfulness have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Meditation can help improve heart health, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association (and backed up by dozens of studies published over the last couple of decades). As well as this, mindfulness can also give us a positive mindset to motivate us to carry out activities that are good for the heart like healthy eating and exercise.
There is a deep connection between our mental health and our heart health.
One study showed that subjects suffering from coronary heart disease who meditated for just 15 minutes a day were shown to have a 48% reduction in risk of death, heart attack, and stroke. The study data suggested “a beneficial relationship between meditation and mortality”.
Physical activity also plays a huge role in improving life expectancy. Even individuals with risk factors have lower death rates than people with no risk factors but who don’t do regular physical activity, according to the American Heart Association. So even people with heart disease will benefit from improving their physical and mental health. And what’s more, improved mental health through meditation and contemplative practice can make it more likely an individual will take part in physical activity. One study found that “participants who were mindful about their movements during physical activity were also more likely to engage in exercise programs.”
What is Mindfulness?
In essence, Mindfulness is about being focussed on the present. It means being aware of what’s going on around us and within us, without being overly focussed on any one aspect of our being. Not obsessing about the future, or agonising about the past. Not getting totally wrapped up in our thoughts, but not being totally disconnected from them either. Mindfulness is a state of focus, and it’s a state of balance.
How Do I Practice Mindfulness?
Whilst being mindfully aware of the present and not overwhelmed or too attached to any one thing can often be a natural state of affairs, especially for children, it can be all too easy to lose this ability to simply be in the moment. Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to regain this natural sense of centred focus. This is the practice of mindfulness.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to practicing mindfulness, and over time you’ll discover your own best way to ‘get into the zone’, as they say.
The best way to practice mindfulness is to focus on one single activity, usually related to your body. A lot of people find focussing on their breathing helps bring their attention to their body, and what they’re doing right now, rather than getting caught up in daily concerns.
Legendary Buddhist Monk Thích Nhất Hạnh said that “the present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” Mindfulness is about reorientation yourself in the present moment. It’s a great way to introduce more calm into our lives and regain control of our mind and body.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Another way of experiencing improved mindfulness is through meditation. Meditation is usually practiced by sitting (or sometimes lying) down in a comfortable position for 15-30 minutes with eyes shut and focussing on breathing, or reciting a mantra, depending on which technique you choose.
The idea is to observe your thoughts and sensations without judgement. Some people think meditation is about clearing your thoughts, but that’s not true. It’s about acknowledging their existence without being beholden to them. It’s about being at peace with your thoughts, whether positive or negative.
At The Heart of Everything
We’re a society that is very much fixated on the brain. We see it as the key differentiator between humans and other animals. We see it as the source of our creativity, wisdom, and productivity. Of course the brain, and mind, are very important. But we’re learning more and more about the central role the heart plays in our overall mental health and wellbeing.
Traditionally, the heart has been metaphorically associated with our feelings. We talk about some having a ‘warm heart’, or holding things ‘close to our hearts’. But the heart can also affect how we think as well as how we feel. The different phases of our heart rate can affect how responsive we are to touch and pain sensations, increase our perception of fear, and put a greater focus on our inner world.
According to neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel, “the world isn’t just a stable thing. How we perceive it is based on our own bodies.”
A study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine revealed that exposure therapy for arachnophobia was most effective when timed to coincide with the heart pumping out blood, rather than contracting.
Unfortunately, negative mental health can affect the health of our hearts. The good news is that the opposite is also true, improving our mental health can help prevent the effects of heart disease.
A paper in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that:
“A rapidly-growing body of literature has linked positive well-being with better cardiovascular health, lower incidence of CVD [Cardiovascular Disease] in healthy populations, and reduced risk of adverse outcomes in patients with existing CVD.”
Alongside the concept of mindfulness, another concept has emerged, a concept called Heartfulness, or here, Being Heartful.
Being Heartful is about connecting a growing sense of mindfulness with greater compassion for ourselves and others.
“if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”Mindfulness Co-Founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn
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