by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.
© June 2007
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Today, in spite of revolutionary advances in the recognition and management of cardiovascular problems, pathological conditions involving the heart and the vascular system are increasing in their overall prevalence.
Not so long ago, the treatment of such cardiovascular conditions as hypertension and angina centered mostly on medication strategies. Today, the awareness of the mind's influence on these and other cardiac conditions has spawned new paradigms of cardiovascular treatment.
Amply documented, yet still surprisingly neglected, are techniques of self-regulation that have potent beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. This article briefly introduces two techniques aimed at the most common cardiovascular condition: hypertension. Once mastered, these techniques can be applied to other cardiovascular conditions, including angina, arrhythmias, and most importantly, cardiac reactivity.
These two techniques are hypnosis/self-hypnosis and autogenic training.
Stress involves the total self. In stress, according to degree, portions of bodily and mental functions are shifted to an alert mode. Unconscious mechanisms automatically prompt the mind and the body to center on survival, thus adopting defensive and/or offensive measures.
Stress invariably involves heart functions. Heart rate is prone to acceleration, and vascular tonicity drives higher blood pressures. Many emotions have an impact on the heart. Anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, guilt and anger all translate to heightened cardiovascular alertness. These emotions can be called negative, partly because they are accompanied by hormonal products whose prolonged presence in the body work against global health.
Positive emotions, especially those associated with self-expression, strength, and creativity, activate the heart as well, but they, by contrast, energize cardiovascular health. The ultimate positive emotion is happiness.
Cardiovascular harmony is achieved by separating the emotional experience of negative emotions from their bodily expressions.
The nervous system matrix
In 1935, Dr. Thérèse Brosse, a Frenchwoman, traveled to India with a portable EKG machine. For its time, that was quite a feat. She connected the machine to an accomplished meditator and unequivocally demonstrated the fact that cardiac rate could be influenced by volition.
Amazingly, the meditator's EKG showed a progressive willful slowing of the heart rhythm. The record even demonstrated a complete heart stoppage for a few seconds!
Repeated in some form many times over the course of the following decades, this experiment illustrates a fundamental principle of the nervous system: it functions as a matrix where every neuron is in some fashion connected to every other neuron.
The implication is clear. In the above example, the very mental act of willfulness, recruiting the activity of billions of neurons in the brain's cortex, is able to travel to nerve centers in the medulla oblongata and even to specialized conduction fibers in the heart, to influence cardiac rate and rhythm.
The same principle applies to every organ in the body.
Some people show heightened sensitivity to their own emotions. Interpersonal communications, especially if conflictual, are invariably reflected in increased cardiac activity. The individual reports unpleasant sensations of accelerated heart rate, palpitations, that disturb mental equilibrium. Blood pressure is raised, often failing to return to normality in a timely manner.
Cardiac reactivity, in itself, is hardly a health-promoting trait. Internal repose tends to be all too often disrupted by unnecessary vascular activation. Frequent and prolonged pressures elevations, in the long term, cause vessel pathology and impaired blood dynamics.
Hypnosis / Self-hypnosis
The hypnotic state of mind and body is a special form of consciousness that anyone can reach with openness of mind and some determination. While it is experienced differently by every one, it embodies certain principles that are universal.
One unifying principle of the hypnotic state is that awareness becomes more fluid. Given direction, awareness can flow into the body's neural networks to positively influence organ systems. One of these systems is the heart and its connected vasculature.
In the deeper stages of hypnosis, the heart can be experienced as being reachable, via thought and feeling. In one sense, in hypnosis, the individual becomes capable of willfully communicating with his/her own heart.
A self-hypnotic exercise for hypertension
In hypnosis, one gains contact to the unconscious mind. The mode of communication with the unconscious mind is different for every one. Some people prefer communication by means of words, while others prefer images or sensations.
Preliminaries to this exercise include finding a peaceful space, and a comfortable body position. A decision is then made to banish all irrelevant thoughts, to delete all emotional surges, and to slow down the body's activities. This decision is a willful act conveying the intent to develop one's self-hypnotic abilities. Eyes close, and the feeling connections to the body space interior become more immediately perceived. Heightened awareness of internal tensions, all self-generated, allows them to be more easily dissolved.
Bodily awareness is then shifted to the area of the heart and lung spaces. Once the feeling connections are sufficiently established, mental messages can be sent.
Some people prefer verbal messages. Always positive in their formulation, the personal nature of the wording is most important. One example: "I wish/want my heart to be strong, regular, and relaxed. My blood pressure eases off with each and every breath."
Others respond best to mental images. One invites images derived from personal associations of relaxation. Since these images come from one's unconscious mind, a very unique place in itself, the images are selected so that the best ones symbolize the most profound blood pressure reduction.
Many people, for one reason or another, do not consider themselves to be hypnotizable, or shun the experience of working in a dyadic context to master self-hypnotic skills.
For these individuals, autogenic training in a good option. Decades ago, it was discovered that the creation of internal sensations in the context of meditative relaxation could well recapitulate the benefits of hypnotic trance states. These sensations are heaviness and warmth. In cardiovascular training, internally generated sensations of relaxed heaviness and comfortable warmth are conduits to cardiac balance and blood pressure regulation.
An autogenic training exercise for hypertension
Preparation for autogenic training is similar to that for self-hypnosis. In either situation, the body has to slow down. Awareness can then more easily be directed to the internal feeling milieu.
Eyes closed, sensations are then directed to the right, or to the left arm. Without tensing or moving the arm, feelings of arm heaviness are first searched for, and then amplified. A successful exercise, after some time of relaxed determination, results in the entire chosen arm feeling an increased sensation of its own weight.
This sensation once obtained, much as dragging an icon on a computer, is then shifted to the region of the heart and lungs. The entire internal chest milieu is bathed in relaxed heaviness. Heart rate will slow down and blood pressure will automatically ease off.
Once mastered, this exercise can then add the sensation of relaxed warmth. Once weight and warmth sensations become familiar, the autogenic trainee is well on the way to increased hypertension control.
Cardiac reactivity is the tendency of the cardiovascular system to over-respond to emotions. The global experience of internal harmony is consonant with a steady cardiac rhythm, a poised cardiac rate, and a relaxed blood pressure relatively impervious to the vagaries of emotional pressures.
Two techniques are briefly introduced, hypnosis/self-hypnosis, and autogenic training. Both, diligently practiced, reliably lead to increasingly robust cardiovascular health.
Suggested Reading and References
Gérard V. Sunnen M.D. 200 East 33rd St. New York, NY 10016 212/679-0679 (voice) 212-679-8008 (fax)