Doesn't the title of this post make you want to crank up a little Tina Turner? Me too.
But this post isn't about 80's flashbacks... It's about how love and intimacy are some of the most powerful factors in health and illness.
February is all about hearts. This month the physical heart is emphasized through efforts of the American Heart Association (AHA) and other organizations to increase awareness about cardiovascular health. (See my post from a couple weeks ago that gives 8 ways to care for your physical heart.) And of course, we celebrated the emotional heart this past week, on Valentine's Day.
Whether you love Valentine's Day or hate it, I think it's important to be aware of the role our emotional heart plays in health and healing.
This is an area that doesn't get a lot of hype in the medical journals or health care ads, but it is extremely important.
LOVE & SURVIVAL
In his classic book Love & Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish, MD dives deep into scientific research that suggests a simple but powerful idea: Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships.
Dr. Ornish writes, "The desire for love and intimacy is a basic human need, as fundamental as eating, breathing or sleeping - and the consequences of ignoring that need are just as dire."
Dr. Ornish explains, "Sometimes the brain needs to be satisfied before the heart begins to open." (This can be especially true for those of us trained in fields that emphasize "hard data" from well-designed research studies.)
Several scientific studies described in Love & Survival have demonstrated that those who experienced love and support (when compared to those who did not) often demonstrated substantially less physical health problems, including heart disease, ulcers, infections, and even cancer.
Furthermore, this effect has been shown to be independent of diet, exercise, smoking, family history (genetics), and other standard risk factors for disease. That's not to say that these risk factors do not play an important role. They most definitely do. However, "these forces can be significantly moderated by a loving relationship."
Of note, the perception (quality) of love and support was found to be more important than the number (quantity) of relationships a person had. "Love and interconnectedness come in many forms - with other people, of course, but also with a pet, or with a spiritual force... It is the experience and the perception of loneliness that seem to determine its effects on our health and well-being."
Dr. Ornish describes 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health. These are:
1. Communication. Words matter. "What we say - and how we say it- can have a powerful effect on bringing us closer to or farther from another person." For example, thoughts (especially those that are judgmental or criticizing) are typically received with a closed heart, which weakens intimacy. On the other hand, feelings are usually received with an open heart and strengthen intimacy. "I think you are wrong, and I think you are a jerk" is received much differently than "I feel angry and upset."
2. Group support. Group support offers a safe place for people to let down their emotional defenses and barriers, in order to express emotions and open their hearts to each other.
3. Confession, forgiveness, and redemption. These are a part of most religious and spiritual traditions and offer profound healing benefits. When you can share your darkest secrets and mistakes with someone who listens without judgment, a powerful social bond of intimacy is formed. You also reintegrate those parts of yourself that are the most painful and least lovable. In other words, "you become more intimate with the deepest parts of yourself."
4. Compassion, altruism, and service. Also a part of most religious and spiritual traditions, these offer profound healing benefits too. We are hardwired to help each other. This has helped us survive as a species for the past several hundred thousand years. Ironically, when we help others, we also help ourselves. This is because we are set free from our loneliness, isolation, and suffering.
5. Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can be a helpful complement to spiritual practices. "Many unresolved issues having to do with family, self-esteem, boundaries, developmental issues, grief, intimacy, childhood abuse, addictions, neuroses, and so on are best addressed by a skilled psychotherapist."
6. Touching. Your skin is your body's largest organ. Of course loving touch feels good, but it goes far beyond that. There are hundreds of studies demonstrating the healing power of touch. Conversely, lack of touch, particularly in infants, has dire consequences. For example, a study looked at babies in ten institutions in 1915, when concern about spreading infectious diseases led to a policy of minimal human contact with the babies. Sadly, every baby in this study died before the age of two, despite adequate nutrition and sanitation. Being held, cuddled, and loved is vital to a developing child.
The need for physical contact remains important throughout our lives. Of course we don't need to cuddle with everyone we meet, but we can look for ways to increase contact with others while respecting their boundaries. Examples can be as simple as a hand shake, pat on the back, hug, holding hands, massage, manicure, or shampoo. (Did you ever consider your hair dresser to be a healer? :)
7. Commitment. Intimacy comes from being vulnerable and opening your heart to another person, even though you could get hurt. Commitment creates safety and makes intimacy possible. Dr. Ornish explains that "commitment leads to real freedom."
8. Meditation. Some people get freaked out by the word meditation. They might envision someone sitting Indian-style, chanting, burning incense, maybe wearing a monk outfit. But none of those are requirements. Meditation is simply the process of paying attention and focusing your awareness. You can do it anywhere - even while sitting at your desk at work! Dr. Ornish explains how this practice offers increased power (through concentrated focus), enjoyment of your senses more fully, and an inner sense of peace and joy.
As you consider heart health this month, keep in mind that both "hearts" are important to good health.
And for a great read on the healing power of love and intimacy, check out Love & Survival!
This post was originally published on February 17, 2017.