Contributed by NHBP Behavioral Health Clinician Emilia D. Marton, MA, LPC, LLP, CAADC, ADS, CTRP, ACLL, GAC, EMDR-Certified
Stress, Emotions and Intelligent Energy Management
“Stress” is one of the most widely used words today. People describe themselves as “stressed” when stuck in traffic or when ending a long-term relationship. Preparing for an exam, dealing with a loved one’s chronic illness or adjusting to new living or working conditions can all be stressful.
What puts all these different experiences under the category of stress?
What defines the experience of stress?
In health care practice, stress is not simply a complaint; it is a powerful risk factor for disease and a significant predictor of health. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2007),17 a documented link exists between stress and an increased risk for heart attacks, depression, cancer and the progression of HIV and AIDS.
Notably, an accompanying article in the same issue shows that workplace stress may be as bad for one’s heart as smoking and high cholesterol.
Growing evidence suggests that stress significantly affects all stages of disease: Origin, progression, and recovery. Furthermore, heart disease and chronic illness patients frequently suffer emotional stress, such as anger, anxiety, fear and depression. By nature, stress is an emotionally driven experience.
In recent years, the medical community has increasingly recognized the need for effective stress and anxiety reduction interventions to help improve emotional health, facilitate rehabilitation in a variety of conditions, and enhance disease prevention.
The HeartMath Approach: An Overview
Since 1991, the HeartMath Institute (HMI), a 501(c)(3) organization based in California, has conducted leading-edge research on stress and emotions, heart-brain interactions, the physiology of learning, and more, all to improve emotional health and overall well-being.
Research has revealed that the heart is not merely a simple pump but rather a highly complex information-processing center. The heart continuously communicates with the brain and body via the nervous system, hormonal system, and other pathways.
At HMI, researchers are demonstrating that the messages the heart sends to the brain not only affect body regulation, but also can profoundly influence perception, emotions, behavior, performance, and health.
HeartMath self-regulation techniques have been effective with young children, adolescents, young adults and adults dealing with a variety of emotional, mental and medical challenges. Therapists, clinicians and other health care providers report improving in perception, self-regulation and behavior in clients and patients with acute, chronic and recurrent pain, psychophysiological problems, learning and performance issues, and chronic illness.
Many scientists believe the quality of emotion people experience is rooted in the underlying state of physical processes, called the Theory of Emotion.
This theory explains that an organized pattern of messaging from nerves to the brain during conscious states — associated with intentional self-generated positive emotion — reinforces the natural conditioning between an efficient body function and a patient’s sense of well-being or emotion. Thus, the patient self-reinforces more healthful emotions and behaviors. This can help therapists to facilitate a client’s shift from external motivation toward a positive internal motivation to empower them to self-regulate with improved awareness and resiliency.
As the ability to self-regulate emotions improves, clients and patients can neutralize and replace draining emotions and shift the emotional and physical dynamics that may be worsening a wide range of medical and psychological conditions.
When Stress Drives Those to Seek Mental Health Assistance
Although mental processes and physical responses play an additional role in stress response, most often, it is unmanaged emotions that provide fuel for the stress. The feeling of panic in a panic attack drives the person to seek mental health assistance.
It is well-recognized that thoughts carrying an “emotional charge” are those that tend to linger in our minds. It is also emotions, more than thoughts alone, that activate the physical changes comprising the stress response. Thus, most of the harmful effects of stress on the brain and body are, in fact, physical consequences of negative emotions. Stress is emotional unease, the experience of which ranges from low-grade feelings of emotional unrest to intense emotional turmoil.
Stress comes not only in response to external situations or events, but also involves the individual’s ongoing perceptions and attitudes of individuals, even in the absence of any identifiable stimulus.
Recurring feelings often consume a significant part of our emotional energy. Examples of these are: agitation, worry, guilt, anxiety, anger, judgmental, fear, resentment, discontentment, disconnectedness, being misunderstanding unhappiness, insecurity, depression and self-doubt. These can often consume a large part of our emotional energy and disrupt our feelings, even as we are engaged in the flow of everyday life.
Of course, many individuals must realize the extent to which these internalized, habitual emotional patterns dominate their thoughts. Instead, they dilute and diminish the positive emotional experience, relationships and motivation for change.
Eventually, a state of stress becomes so familiar that it essentially becomes a defining part of one’s sense of identity.
The techniques provided as part of the HeartMath Interventions Program provide health care practitioners and therapists the ability to offer clients/patients a variety of easy-to-use tools and strategies to enhance stress management and emotional regulation. By identifying and blocking the impact of draining emotions which can cause persistent energy “drains,” and developing strategies to enhance positive emotions, we can learn to manage our daily energy balance while building resilience in mind, body and spirit.