Stress is the stimulus for growth, and recovery is when growth occurs.
Since we cannot eliminate stress from our lives, how do we build our resilience muscle to allow growth and recovery to happen?
Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience. There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience. Scientists who study stress and resilience say it is important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time.
Your Heart & The Brain
One of the best ways to develop resilience is to improve communication between your heart and your brain.
The interest in the relation between the heart and the mind comes from ancient times. Aristotle mistakenly thought that the brain was an organ that cooled down the passions from the heart; however, he also noted that negative emotions adversely impacted health.
William Osler was the first researcher to publish a paper in 1910 on the repercussion that emotions have upon the heart, mentioning the influence of anxiety on heart attacks.
One of the first scientific studies on the subject was the one published by Malzberg in 1937, in which he found a six-fold increase in the mortality rate adjusted per age in patients having coronary artery disease and depression when compared to the general population.
This concept relates to the health of our body and in particular of our heart, the organ that keeps us alive.
Cardiovascular diseases are the main cause of premature death and chronic disability in the world. So learning how to promote practices to reduce stress and keep your heart healthy improves your longevity and life expectancy as well.
The functioning of the brain and cardiovascular system is subject to epigenetic regulation, which means that it may be reprogrammed if the individual undertakes changes in their lifestyle. Epigenetic regulation determines whether our brain and nervous system respond to stress in an adaptive or maladaptive way. Therefore, understanding the connection between stress, the brain, the nervous system response, and our heart is crucial for our mental and physical health.
There are at least three systems playing a regulatory role in the brain-heart connection:
1. The central nervous system (CNS), which is the main instrument to explore and evaluate environmental situations.
2. The autonomous nervous system (ANS), with its sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions.
3. The cardiac nervous system by way of the Vagus Nerve.
When these systems are communicating and regulated, when stress occurs you will know how to handle the emotions associated with it and then return to baseline, then all of your organs and systems go back to baseline so you can heal and restore balance. This increases the variability of the patterns of your heart rhythm – your heart rate variability – and therefore increases your heart’s capacity to manage stressful emotions and your resilience muscles.
Heart Rate Variability: the dance between stress and relaxation
One way to regulate your heart rate variability (HRV) is to activate your relaxation response.
The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that occurs when a person is extremely relaxed. It counteracts the body’s physical and emotional responses to stress, allowing it to return to a calm, relaxed state. When a person elicits the relaxation response, there is a measurable decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, stress hormone levels, and muscle tension.
You heard many times about the fight or flight response that is activated by the nervous system when we respond to stress. Sometimes, this activation can become hyperactive and deregulates our nervous system. In order to restore balance, we need to let some of that energy out by relaxing. To maintain a regulated response to stress we need to practice this dance between relaxation and regulation every day, multiple times per day.
Think of this relaxation response as the opposite of the fight or flight response. It is so effective, that it can literally switch your stress response off in less than 5 minutes.
Physically, this technique activates a specific nerve in our nervous system called the vagus nerve. This nerve is like a highway for our nervous system and controls our automatic response to stress in our face, throat, heart, lungs, diaphragm, in our gut, and all the way down to your bladder. This nerve “highway” stretches through our entire body. It’s like the Route 66 of nerves. Basically it slows down everything it reaches and activates the opposite of the flight & fight stress response. In fact, its main function is called the rest and digest response because it helps to slow us down.
As human beings, we want to live primarily at a baseline state with nice and easy ups and downs. Of course, stressors are going to come in and disrupt this baseline by activating our stress response. By learning how to deactivate this response and regulate our nervous system back down to our baseline we prevent our body and brain from going into a chronic stress mode.
More ways to regulate your Heart Rate Variability
1. Practice Optimism.
2. Rewrite Your Story by reframing the personal narrative that shapes your view of the world and of yourself.
3. Remember Your Comebacks. You will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome. Look back and say, “I’ve gone through something worse in the past. This is not the most horrible thing I have ever faced or will ever face. I know that I can deal with it”.
4. Support Others. Resilience studies show that people are more resilient when they have strong support networks of friends and family to help them cope with a crisis. But you can get an even bigger resilience boost by giving support. A study of psychological resilience done in 2017 among American military veterans showed that higher levels of gratitude, altruism and a sense of purpose predicted resiliency.
5. Go Out of Your Comfort Zone. Resilience doesn’t just come from a negative experience. You can build your resilience by putting yourself in challenging situations. Take an adventure vacation. Run a marathon. Share your secret poetry skills with strangers at a poetry slam. When you challenge yourself to go out of your comfort zone, your stress response will become less responsive to stress so you can increase your nervous system capacity to handle stress.
6. Try incorporating greater appreciation into your life. Have you ever experienced a gentle warmth around your heart when someone appreciates you, or you express your appreciation and gratitude for others? Heartfelt appreciation can facilitate the healing of the human body and spirit. Sincere, heartfelt appreciation uplifts, inspires and drives us to achieve that which we did not think possible. These are just a few of the many amazing properties of the powerful human emotion of appreciation.
Appreciation is good for your heart
Repeated studies show that individuals who intentionally focus on appreciation or other positive emotions can change their heart rate variability (HRV), from chaotic to smooth and rhythmic, like ocean waves. This is a sign of good health and emotional balance.
Try this simple appreciation exercise. It only takes a minute – and you will be surprised by the results.
Start focusing your attention on your heart area, and breathe a little deeper than normal, in for 5 or 6 seconds and out 5 or 6 seconds.
Imagine breathing through your heart. Picture yourself slowly breathing in and out through your heart area.
Activate a positive feeling as you maintain your heart focus and breathing. Recall a time you felt good inside, and try to re-experience that feeling. Remember a special place or the love you feel for a close friend, relative or treasured pet. The key is to focus on something you really appreciate.
Do you notice a greater sense of ease, wellbeing or relaxation? Want to go even deeper?
Try incorporating greater appreciation into your life in these simple ways:
1. Take Appreciation Breaks. Take two or three appreciation breaks each day – ideally early in the morning, during work, school, returning home or before bed. Just follow the above simple steps. It takes as little as two minutes to achieve mental, emotional and physical balance.
2. Make an Appreciation List. Make a list of things you appreciate – people, places, activities, pets – and choose one or two each morning to hold in your heart during the day. Choose an item again at night to hold in your heart while you rest.
3. Practice Appreciation in the Moment. Keep your Appreciation List close all day, in a pocket or purse, by your computer or elsewhere. In stressful moments, choose an item that can quickly evoke appreciation. It can turn a stressful day into one that flows – in 30 seconds or less.
Practicing these appreciation exercises accelerates your connection between your brain and your heart. By simply activating a positive feeling of sincere appreciation, you can increase your heart rate variability (HRV), reduce emotional stress and improve your health.
I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Stay healthy, be grateful and remember that you have the power to harness growth, health, and happiness!