Are You OnCourse? Our Blog

Articles to keep you up to date and OnCourse!

Two doctors holding a heart with a stethoscope.

Mind Your Heart – Heart Health Month

Stress and change go hand in hand when our resources don’t create predictability.  Sometimes change happens too quickly, sometimes not quick enough, or sometimes change never stops. Our initial response is usually to stop or avoid some aspect of continuous change.  We experience this stress in our mind, our body and our heart.

Among the many ways to manage continuous change, during Heart Awareness Month we here at OnCourse invite you to focus on your heart as well as your brain.  As it turns out, one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and feeling overwhelmed is to learn how to access the intelligence of year heart.  We do this by shifting your heart rhythms that in turn send a different neural message to the brain.

As psychologists, we implement simple, practical, empirically supported techniques to teach alignment between the heart, physiologically not simply metaphorically, and the brain.  As you consider this shift, please recall a time when that deep physical sense that what we want, or are being asked to do, is probably not the best option or even possible right now. This lack of alignment, or incoherence, provokes somatic and emotional anxiety that we call stress.  Without active intentional skills to generate coherence between our heart and our brain, passive insight rarely makes us feel better. Coherence in our thoughts and actions and physiological responses allows our heart, mind, emotions and choices to align and work together harmoniously toward our own goals and shared needs.

Understanding more about how our heart and brain communicate provides insight into the tools and techniques that create active coherence.  Most of us are not aware that the heart sends more information, afferent messages, through the nervous system to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.  We typically think that changes in thoughts and sensory perceptions produce predictable changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion.  Conventional thinking has assumed that the autonomic nervous system creates physiological responses when the brain responds to environmental threats and reinforcers (Rein, Atkinson, et al, 1995). In other words, when we are aroused, the sympathetic nervous system energizes us for fight or flight, and the parasympathetic component cools us down.

In the last 25 years, an increasing number of studies have expanded our understanding of how the heart communicates to the brain in ways that significantly affect how we perceive and react to the world.  Neurophysiologists have discovered a mechanism whereby input from the heart to the brain inhibits or facilitates the brain’s electrical activity (McCraty, 2002), providing an initial focus for developing coherence between the heart and brain.

Murphy, et al, (2000) and later Armor (2004) extended this research and reported that the heart’s intrinsic nervous system operates and processes input independently of the brain or central nervous system. Conventional cognitive-oriented psychology assumes that the heart receives neurological stimuli via nerve fibers running through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. In a heart transplant, however, these nerve connections do not fully reconnect for an extended period of time.  In the meantime, the transplanted heart is able to function through the capacity of its intact, intrinsic nervous system.

Armour (2004) went further by reporting the heart’s complex nervous system is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a ‘little brain’ in its own right; an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells similar to those found in the brain proper. This research found that elaborate circuitry enables the heart to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, feel and sense. The heart’s nervous system contains around 40,000 neurons, called sensory neurites and sends information to the brain through afferent nerve pathways that enter the brain at the area of the medulla, and cascade through the limbic system to frontal lobe, where they may influence perception, decision-making and other cognitive processes.

Multiple researchers have also reported that the heart generates signals to release hormones that effect the blood vessels, the kidneys, the adrenal glands, and a large number of regulatory regions in the brain.  These cells are reported to prompt release of noradrenaline and dopamine neurotransmitters.  More recently, it was discovered that the heart also secretes oxytocin, commonly referred to as the ‘love’ or bonding hormone.  This hormone is also involved in cognition, tolerance, adaptation, attachment, learning social cues and the establishment of enduring pair bonds. Concentrations of oxytocin in the heart have been found to be as high as in the brain.

Additionally, the heart’s afferent signals directly affect activity in the limbic system that coordinates behavioral, immunological, and neuroendocrine responses to environmental threats and associated stimuli.  An important structure in the limbic system is the amygdala, the emotional processing center in the brain. The amygdala compares incoming signals to stored memories paired with emotions, instantaneously informing decisions about the level of perceived threat. Incoherent heart rhythms activate a threat response by the autonomic nervous system, including emotional responses, before the pre-frontal cortex perceives and responds to the sensory information (Rein, McCraty and Atkinson, 1995 & McCraty et al, 1995)

In contrast, when heart rhythm patterns are coherent, afferent signals facilitate cortical function. This effect is often experienced as heightened mental clarity, improved decision-making and increased creativity.  Coherent input from the heart reinforces the importance of afferent messages in mindful awareness, somatic regulation, and positive feeling states and psychophysiological balance.

Coherence techniques regulate our nervous system, replacing the “fight or flight” mode with flexibility and clarity so we can think straight. We feel free and incredibly powerful when we replace draining emotions such as frustration, irritation, anxiety or anger, with active skills that balance heart rhythms, facilitate brain function and allow increased access to fluid creativity, flow, and problem-solving.

During this Heart Awareness Month, we encourage everyone to take time and thank their heart for coherence this month.

-Dr. Russ Buford, Psychologist

A man in a blue shirt is smiling in front of a computer.

Comments for this post are closed.
A poster with the words mental health helpline.

Cayman Community Resource List

Government/Free Services in Cayman: Department of Counselling Services **Free Services to anyone in Cayman** Additional Government/Charitable …

OnCourse now offers Speech Therapy! Welcome to Heather Mitchell!

OnCourse is excited to be expanding our services to now include Speech Therapy with Ms. Heather Mitchell.  Heather is a …

Men’s Health – What is Your ‘Check Engine’ Light?

We are designed to make, fix, create, provide, compete and win.  Many of us treat winning as evidence of strength magnified …