Updated: Feb 3, 2021
February is synonymous with Valentine’s Day and as we prepare to celebrate the love (or bemoan the lack there of) in our lives that this holiday demands, it’s worth reflecting on how intimately our brains and hearts are connected. And, how we can leverage our brain’s plasticity to improve our heart’s health.
We’ve all experienced that wonderful “be still my foolish heart” feeling that lasts for several weeks when you first fall in love, or the warmth and fullness in your heart that you feel when your child flashes a giant smile your way and tells you how much they love you (This is especially true if your child is a teenager and the rare sighting of a smile can send you into elation for days!). As it turns out though, the heart racing sensations you experience from these intense emotions can cause physical changes in the actual shape, size, and capacity of your heart.
It’s called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or Broken Heart Syndrome – discovered in Japan in the 1990’s and named after a Japanese clay pot used for catching octopi shaped like a small, inflated round balloon, which is one shape the heart can take after experiencing intense heartbreak. Research indicates that intense emotion and/or stress can cause the heart to change shape and become extended and ballooned or contracted and shriveled. Love and happiness can cause a ballooning in the center of the heart, increasing capacity, while intense grief and stress, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or other personal trauma has been shown to cause a shriveling of the heart, decreasing it in size and capacity or cause a ballooning at the apex of the heart, weakening the muscle’s strength.
This phenomenon also seems to be true for animals. Research has demonstrated improved heart health in rabbits that were provided routine affection and stimulation, despite being fed high cholesterol diets. The rabbit control group with no interaction and high cholesterol diets had increased heart disease and died much sooner. (This finally answers the question of why The Grinch was so grinchy - he really did have a heart two sizes too small!)
The good news is that research shows the heart will typically self-correct and return to a more normal shape in several weeks, assuming the emotional intensity subsides. But, for those people who experience frequent episodes of intense stress, such as living with an abusive spouse (love gone wrong), or a long-term level of grief, such as abrubtly losing a spouse of 50 years (love interrupted), research is telling us that dying from a “broken heart” isn’t too far from the truth. This explains the stories you hear of a seemingly healthy grandparent dying months after their spouse of 50 years passes, or of an elderly pet dying soon after their long-time human or animal companion goes.
Given this link between emotions and the heart, and the known fact that we can use our brain’s plasticity to moderate our emotions, as illustrated by extensive scientific research on mindfulness and extolled by seasoned meditators globally, then it stands to reason that a meditation practice that supports emotional control can also improve our heart’s health. Happier thoughts lead to healthier, and more shapely, hearts.
So this Valentine’s Day, regardless of your partnership status – happily married, single and ready to mingle, or just out of a relationship with the worst person on earth - forgo the over-priced dinner and dessert that will reshape your waistline, or the temptation to drink a bottle of vodka while commiserating on how no one loves you, which will reshape how you feel the next day, and consider an evening of calming yoga and meditation focused on emotional control. Your heart will L-O-V-E its new shape!