Stress, Grief, and Broken Hearts: An Interview with Cardiologist John M. Kennedy, MD
This introduction to Part 1 of our interview with cardiologist, John Kennedy, M.D., is a bit longer than usual because of our passionate feelings about this subject. To skip our comments and go right to the expert, Dr. Kennedy, scroll to the bold sentence beginning: We spoke with Dr. Kennedy on the phone …
The heart is like no other organ of the human body. To it are ascribed feeling, emotion, and intelligence. Courage, kindness, envy, hate, anger, grief, and of course, love reside in the heart—and if they don’t, that heart is cold.
Religious and secular literature from virtually every continent and era is packed with references to this 11-oz. complex muscle.
“I detest that man who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks for another.” —Homer (800 BC – 700 BC)
“A long drawn-out hope brings sickness of heart…” —Proverbs 13:12, The Bible
“Everybody’s at war with different things…I’m at war with my own heart sometimes.” —Tupac Shakur
Ancient Chinese, African, Middle-eastern, European, Native American, Australian Aboriginal, and so on all recognized the connection between the heart and the emotions. For thousands of years people have believed—and modern science has proven—that a link exists between the state of the “mind” of the heart and the state of the physical heart.
But with the advent of modern medical advances (beginning with Edward Jenner’s creation of the first vaccination for smallpox in the late 1800s and Louis Pasteur’s discovery of germs and their pathological aspects), the divide between the intangible aspects of humankind (the mind, the heart as the seat of emotion) and the physical (the human body) grew.
Modern medicine brought about wonders that not one of us would give up for an instant—for example, infant mortality rates have improved more than 100 percent in the last two centuries. But with the increase in scientific understanding came a kind of hard-heartedness towards things that were difficult to prove. Science has finally caught up to what we’ve known all along—and has proven, with study after study, that the feelings and emotions we have affect our physical health, and especially the health of our heart (and vice versa).
We spoke on the phone with Dr. John Kennedy who has observed this phenomenon first hand and addresses it in his book, The 15-Minute Heart Cure. He began his life-long love of cardiology in his high school science class. The father of a friend lectured on the heart, he fell in love with cardiology, and says, “I woke up one day in medical school at Dartmouth, doing typical rounds.”
Dr. John Kennedy (DJK): I was in a long queue behind the teacher with the other interns, like white-coated ducklings following a mother duck. We went to the ER and there we examined a patient. Mrs. Jones was lying in bed, pale, sweaty and anxious. She had high blood pressure and a high heart rate. She complained of chest pains. She was also upset and talking about her marital problems and financial woes. As we swarmed around her we took a careful history. The attending doctor then told her, “You’re going to be okay.” And he sent her home.
“Wow,” I thought. I was really shocked—she looked so sick. Then the attending doctor said it was supratentorial, that is, all in her head. I began to think maybe I picked the wrong profession.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Jones was back. She looked terrible and was exhibiting the same symptoms. This time though, after a battery of tests, the conclusion was very different. The attending doctor told her, “It looks like you’ve had a heart attack”.
Two weeks earlier, her symptoms had been dismissed and minimized. But I knew that there was a lot of evidence that stress preceded heart disease and attacks—but doctors weren’t addressing this.
Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and president of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute (he endorsed Dr. Kennedy’s book), has been a leader in the field of preventing heart disease. He directed a clinical trial called the “Lifestyle Heart Trial” that proved that a healthy lifestyle—including exercise, diet, and so on, is important for heart health. In fact, there is plenty of data that shows that marital arguing patterns, anger, hostility, depression can all precipitate heart disease. Indirect stress is also bad for the heart; for example, to mask stress symptoms many people do things that cause heart disease, such as smoking, excessive drinking, and eating comfort foods, unhealthy foods, or simply too much food. Both direct and indirect stressors come together to create the “perfect storm for heart disease.”
So, the question is, “If stress is bad, is relaxation good?
RZ/CRZ: Common sense dictates yes.
DJK: The reason that this is so is because when the “flight or fight response” is triggered, adrenal and cortisol are released into the body and have deleterious effects on the heart, the blood pressure, inflammation, and so on. I give talks to doctors, and of the last 3000 of them I asked if emotional stress precipitates heart disease, well, 3000 out of 3000 agree. The emotions impact morbidity and mortality. We all agree, there is absolutely no question.
However when I asked these same doctors what we do to teach our patients to reduce stress … Zero. Not one doctor was teaching his patients how to do this. Doctors don’t actually get paid to do this and also don’t have much time to do this. We are taught that a lot of stuff is just in your head. In fact, we are taught that psychiatry isn’t “real medicine.”
Numerous studies have been done that support the importance of managing stress—the stuff that is “all in your head”. Martin Rossman, MD wrote about the use of guided imagery in Healing Cancer From Within. Bob Kriegel, Ph.D., wrote about how athletes use breath and visualization to perform in Inner Skiing and and The C Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure
There still a data-treatment paradox. But that is changing. The brain and the heart are connected.
RZ/CRZ: Actually, that is a very important insight that we often write about, albeit from another perspective.
In Part 2, learn about Dr. Kennedy’s B.R.E.A.T.H.E. technique to combat stress and improve health.
Dr. John M. Kennedy, co-author of The 15-Minute Heart Cure: The Natural Way to Release Stress and Heal Your Heart in Just Minutes a Day, works as the Director of Preventive Cardiology and Wellness, at Marina Del Rey Hospital, Marina Del Rey, California. He is on the Board of Directors for the American Heart Association and speaks regularly on their behalf. His special interest, which is highlighted in his book, is stress and how it adversely affects our delicate cardiovascular system. He lectures regularly on the subject and has helped companies educate employees on how to manage stress in the workplace.
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2010). Stress, Grief, and Broken Hearts: An Interview with Cardiologist John M. Kennedy, MD. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2010/03/stress-grief-and-broken-hearts-an-interview-with-cardiologist-john-m-kennedy-md/