I awoke yesterday morning with an all-encompassing sense of overwhelm. My mind was racing over all of the things I had to accomplish. As a marriage and family therapist, I love what I do and, as a result, I was thinking about who and how I was going to help that day. Everything I had to get done before going into the office snuck up on me, like answering a phone call from my accountant, responding to emails, and taking my daughter’s dog for a walk. The stacking of all of these small things made for a largely hectic and stressful morning!
If you’ve had experiences like this then you know that the smallest daily tasks or larger scale challenges – like an argument with your partner, being yelled at by your boss for something going wrong at work, or even coping with the loss of a loved one – can become completely overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to feel isolated, forgetting that others are dealing with challenges in their own lives.
It’s during situations like these that it’s important to stop the mental clamoring, get out of your head, and ask, “What is my heart saying?”
All too often we rely upon our brains to rationalize and solve all of our problems when in fact our hearts offer a more effective solution! Decades of research have shown that our hearts are powerful communicators. Studies conducted by the HeartMath Institute reveal that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically through the transmission of nerve impulses, biochemically through hormones and neurotransmitters, biophysically through pressure waves, and energetically through electromagnetic field interactions. What’s more, science has also revealed that our hearts have their own “heart-brain,” equipped with 40,000 neurons that can sense and feel more effectively than your actual brain.
Dr. John Gottman references this power in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, explaining that the most important trait of highly effective, empathetic parents is that they “use their hearts to feel what their children are feeling.” If using your heart can help you more effectively connect with your children and others, why not try using it to express a little self-compassion?
Compassionate Heart Breathing
Here is a simple and powerful exercise that I like to share with clients to get them out of their heads and back into their hearts. It’s called compassionate heart breathing and it combines the practices of self-compassion and mindfulness while tapping into the power of your heart. It effectively opens and softens your heart, oxygenates your blood, and activates the calming and restorative powers of your parasympathetic nervous system – the one that is responsible for calming you down.
Start by placing one or both of your hands on your heart. Take two to three deep, satisfying breaths, slowly tapping into your “heart-brain.” Applying gentle pressure, make small circles with your hand over your heart, feeling the natural rising and falling as you breathe in and out. Stay with that feeling as long as you like. If this makes you feel uneasy, explore where on your body a gentle touch is soothing. This could be on your abdomen, cheek, or stroking your arms. You can even cup one hand in another while resting them both on your lap.
Now, as you continue to breathe and soothe yourself, acknowledge what is happening and how you are feeling. Follow up with a supportive statement such as, “What I am experiencing is tough and I am suffering. May I be kind and loving to myself as I gain clarity and strength.” Find a statement that works for you, like one that you would say to a dear friend. Feel the words roll gently through your heart, eventually making their way to your brain.
Practice compassionate heart breathing any time you feel angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, or are experiencing any kind of emotional or physical discomfort. Remaining open to your heart’s voice will help you wake up to your true self, while simultaneously influencing your brain and body in beneficial ways.