February is Heart Month. A time to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health and what we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. Do you know how to keep your hearth healthy? You can take an active role in reducing your risk for heart disease by managing your blood pressure and cholesterol, eating a healthy diet and participating in regular exercise. These things are likely not new information. Learning about how to be healthy is inormaion many of us are presented with early on in life. What we don’t always learn about early on is how impactful stress can be for our overall well-being. Some stress can be healthy for us but too much stress can lead to health problems and unhealthy coping habits.
Often medications and exercises classified as “cardio” are prescribed as a both preventative and a way to combat adverse health challenges. For many searching for alternative avenues and holistic health, it begs the question, do yoga and mindfulness play a role in heart health?
"A large number of studies show that yoga benefits many aspects of cardiovascular health," says Hugh Calkins, M.D., director of Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at John Hopkins. "There's been a major shift in the last five years or so in the number of cardiologists and other professionals recognizing that these benefits are real." Many of us are aware of the benefits of yoga in terms of lowering stress, but practicing yoga also helps lower blood pressure, blood glucose levels, blood cholesterol and heart rate, making it an overall useful addition to a healthy lifestyle. Practicing mindfulness and meditation may help you manage stress and high blood pressure, sleep better, feel more balanced and connected, and even lower your risk of heart disease. Research has also found that practicing mindfulness and meditation can positively affect a measure of heart rate known as HRV, heart rate variability, physiological phenomenon of variation in the time interval between heartbeats.
With all this conversation around the heart, what if we dove a little deeper into the topic of self-compassion. How could offering ourselves the gift of self-compassion be a healing endeavor? First, let’s look at what self-compassion means. Self-compassion is extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.It’s being kind to yourself even when you know you have done something that does not align, or you think does not align with your true self. It is no secret that we are often our worst critics. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and
Kristen Neff is a guru in the arena of self-compassion. She offers many resources and suggestions that we can apply and practice which will allow us to expand and grow our understanding and integration of self-compassion. According to Neff there are three components of self-compassion; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness involves being warm and nurturing to ourselves when we fail, suffer, or feel inadequate, rather than being self-critical or ignoring the difficulty or pain derived from a situation we are facing. It looks like accepting what is and knowing that it is not forever. It looks like admitting things are hard and being okay with not being okay. It means accepting that people make mistakes, even you, and learning from them instead of condemning. When we are kind to ourselves, we are able to build resilience and become more tolerant and accepting of imperfections. This, like so many other traits, can spill over into our interactions with others. Allowing for a radical state of kindness which increases our feel-good hormones and can gift us with a happier life.
A popular video flooded the internet awhile back that addressed the internal self-talk that we experience in our minds and how it effects our well-being. The speaker offered an exercise to help reframe the words we are speaking to ourselves. She suggested finding a photo of your five-year-old self and seeing if the things you would ever say those things to the child in the photo. It was eye opening for many that commented because they hadn’t seen how damaging their words were to their inner child and how impactful being kind to yourself really proves to be.
Common humanity is a lens through which we can see the struggles we face as a part of the human experience rather than something that is exclusive to ourselves. When we understand that everyone has experienced or is experiencing suffering, we are able to widen the lens and deepen our connections to others. Why is this important? It helps combat feelings of isolation which are more prominent than ever before given the state of our present world. Those self-serving monologues become a thing of bonding when we know that we are in fact, not alone, and that there are others who can relate to our journey. This can create a sense of community which, when fostered, is beneficial for human growth.
Finally, mindfulness, being aware of what is happening right now and not being worried about what happened before or what is going to happen later. Mindfulness is the superpower that helps us to identify what is happening in our present moment, including being aware of our feelings and emotions, without judgment. Mindfulness also requires us to be aware of our pain but not be overcome by it or allow it to control our thoughts and therefore our behaviors. If we are practicing mindfulness, we notice the sensations without trying to change, deny or suppress them. As Neff says, “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
Adding self-compassion into your mindfulness practice can be as simple as placing your hand over your heart while you are breathing. This very basic act is said to promote the release of oxytocin in the brain, the feel-good hormone for love and connection. It encourages us to feel loving kindness toward ourselves and in turn promotes making choices that will reflect that kindness and compassion. It can also look like keeping a journal of the daily events that impact our days, particularly those that are challenging as a way to process them for your overall mental well-being. It could also look like taking a walk outside and intentionally breathing deeply as you allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise, without judgement of course!
Take some time to celebrate heart month with loving kindness and self-compassion. It is the gift you can give yourself that ripples out to everyone in your path. What could be more heart healthy than that?