heart disease

Matters of the Heart

For many years it was largely assumed that a Type A personality, anger or hostility was related to onset of heart disease. However, empirical research has found that the relationship between heart disease and Type A personality is quite complicated and that the impact of hostility on the development of heart disease is at best weak (Marks, Murray, Evans, Willig, Woodall, & Sykes, 2006). Generally, there is much less heard about Type A behaviors, hostility or anger in those who have already survived and live with heart disease. This is unfortunate as there are multiple factors that can contribute to the emergence of feelings of hostility or anger when living with heart disease. For example, a person who has just undergone cardiac surgery may be experiencing excruciating pain. This person's ribs may have had to be broken in order for the surgery to be performed, arteries from other parts of this person's body may have been moved in order to replace damaged arteries. It is extremely difficult to imagine this person not being at the very least a bit angry about what his or her body has had to go through. This is only one scenario. Imagine another person, who happens to have a Type A personality but whose activities are significantly limited because of a heart condition. This person might be furious that running a marathon, doing all the house chores, and working long hours is no longer an option...talk about lifestyle changes! There are numerous examples and I am sure others can include additional ones but something that is certainly painful and that cannot be avoided is the meaning associated with damage to one's heart.

Many ancient traditions believed that the heart is the seat of the soul, and held the heart in higher esteem than the brain or mind, which most modern day westerners do not do. However, even modern day westerners think of the heart when they think of life. It is the organ that pumps vital blood throughout our body that keeps the body and the brain living. Similar to older traditions, most modern communities acknowledge the heart as the origin of love. Even little children draw pictures of hearts when they think of love. Damage to any vital organ of our bodies is likely to create anger, pain, frustration, or a need to exert control. However, the heart is the only organ that has all of these transcultural and transgenerational meanings attached to it. Literally one's heart is "broken" or "hurt" or "damaged," and it may feel completely out of one's control. Yes maybe one could have smoked less, ate healthier, or exercised more, but then there are just some who have heart disease running in their family and could not avoid it despite being pinnacles of health. Regardless of the contributing factors, nobody asked for a broken heart.

Similar to an emotionally "broken heart," sometimes people who live with heart disease may feel like nobody understands their pain. They may want to be "left alone" and at times can become depressed. They may feel a need to try to micromanage or control whatever they can on their own without help from others, much like someone who has been let down by another person--except this time their own body has let them down and hurt their hearts. It may become easy to want to protect one's own heart from any more pain, to close it up, which may even manifest physically by slouching and sinking one's heart into the chest rather than standing up straight and showing one's heart to the world.

This sounds sad, but it does not have to be. Think about people who have had their hearts broken by others, became depressed and sad, and even angry. Many of these people a few years later or maybe even sooner are the happiest they have ever been and in loving relationships, perhaps with others but most importantly with themselves. Yes, there are other people who have had their hearts broken and have never seemed able to recover but that is a choice guided by fear...fear of standing up straight again and showing one's heart to the world; heart emotionally but also heart physically.

Emotions and the body are not so disconnected as it is easy to sometimes believe. There are reasons why meanings of love and life have been attributed to the heart. Sometimes a way to get to an emotional place that you'd like to be is through the physical. As discussed above the physical can certainly negatively impact one's emotional state but it can ALSO do the opposite. Ok, so your body has let you down, your heart hurts and is in pain...what are you going to do about it? Will you live in fear of feeling pain again, hiding your heart deep within the cavity of your chest, or will you stand up tall and say I love you to life...even if sometimes it hurts. Maybe you can try to make some physical changes (CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST)such as engaging in certain yoga poses that focus on opening up the chest area. For something less physically rigorous, try some reiki or meditation on the heart. If approved by your doctor even try or some aerobic activity, such as running, dancing, or swimming. Physical changes can also include behaviors like singing, which involves breathing through the belly and chest and brings fresh life giving oxygen to the heart. One can also read poetry that invokes loving emotions. There are many options.

I do not think anyone would suggest that it is not ok to feel angry, sad, or at times even want to isolate yourself. These emotions are ok as long as they do not take over. Anything extreme is usually never a good thing but all in moderation is not so bad. Surviving and living with heart disease can be a traumatizing and terrifying experience, and one has a right to feel whatever he or she feels about it. The question remaining though is, will you be that person who never gets over one's lost love or will you be the person who after experiencing a lost love eventually finds happiness like never before? Remember your heart may have been broken, but your heart--YOU are still alive.

Marks,D.F.,Murray,M.,Evans,B.,Willig,C.,Woodall,C.,& Sykes, C.M. (2006). Health psychology: Theory, research & practice (2nd ed). New York: Sage.