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How to live from the heart

By Suzanne Steinbaum
updated 7:39 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
A woman practices yoga on a British beach. Suzanne Steinbaum says
A woman practices yoga on a British beach. Suzanne Steinbaum says "living from the heart" includes reducing stress.
  • Suzanne Steinbaum: "Living from the heart" applies to the physical and emotional as well
  • She says eating well, exercising, reducing stress are good for your heart
  • It's about knowing what makes you happy, lifts your spirit and makes you feel loved

Editor's note: Suzanne Steinbaum is the author of "Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum's Heart Book" and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign. She is an attending cardiologist and the director of Women and Heart Disease of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

(CNN) -- You've probably hear the phrase "living from the heart," and you might think it's only about your emotions. But to me, it means something more literal, but at the same time more symbolic. The heart is our center and reflects how we feel, who we are and our ultimate health. If we take care of our hearts, we take care of our whole being -- physically and emotionally.

To prevent heart disease, we can watch what we eat and how we exercise. Although these are critical factors, living from the heart also applies to how we live, how we love and how we feel about ourselves. Heart health means well being, and that is something you can have an impact on, at every level.

Suzanne Steinbaum
Suzanne Steinbaum

In my practice as a cardiologist, as well as in my practice as a human being, I see heartsickness everywhere. It comes in many forms -- hypertension, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression and unhappiness, not to mention heart disease. Why is this happening, and why are women suffering from heartsickness at an unprecedented rate?

It has to do with the way we've become increasingly entrenched in our brains. We, as a society, have made intellect and rationality a priority over emotion and compassion. We prioritize our heads over our hearts, and this is a great mistake.

To live from the heart means to live listening to what makes us feel good, vitalized, energized, balanced, rejuvenated and healthy, both physically and emotionally. It means surrounding ourselves with people who nourish our souls, build us up, and make us want to be the best we can be.

It also means diets that give us what we need in nutrients and energy but not what slows us down -- excessive fat, sugar and salt. It means exercise that helps our arteries remain flexible and strong and makes our heart efficiently deliver oxygen to our bodies.

We also must take time to consider how we approach the world around us. Depression, anxiety, pessimism, anger, hostility and job dissatisfaction all play a role in the development of heart disease. The negativity behind these emotions leads to the release of stress hormones that trigger inflammation, high blood pressure and eventually heart disease.

Living from the heart begins with knowing what makes you sad or happy, what allows your spirit to flourish, what turns you on, and what makes you feel loved.
Suzanne Steinbaum

People tend to forget how directly stress and negative emotions influence the physical body, but the research supports this, and I see it all the time in my practice.

Our minds can dictate the direction of our hearts, for better or for worse. Our thoughts, how we perceive our circumstances and manage ourselves, can actually release hormones that can be powerful and destructive or positive and healthy. A recent study shows that those people who are the most optimistic have a 50% reduced risk of experiencing a first heart attack. A heart healthy life includes learning how to stay away from negative thoughts and manage stress.

Stress management may sound like an obscure lifestyle recommendation --what does it mean? Meditation? Deep breathing? How do you just stop worrying or panicking or feeling sad? But there are ways.

Stress management is anything that allows you to focus on and slow down your breath, decrease your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and enable your thoughts to focus on what you can do, where you have power and how you can help and nurture yourself.

You can manage stress through yoga, transcendental meditation, mindfulness, exercise or just taking a few minutes to spend quiet time with yourself each day. My advice to you is to find your way. It is a critical part of living from the heart.

Living from the heart goes further still. It means getting enough sleep. Seven and a half hours seems to be the sweet spot. It means getting enough sex and emotionally satisfying physical contact with others -- both release mood-elevating hormones, decrease inflammation and boost the immune system. It means having relationships that fulfill and support you, and it means having a life purpose, whether it is a career, a hobby or a mission.

Living from the heart begins with knowing what makes you sad or happy, what allows your spirit to flourish, what turns you on and what makes you feel loved. Living from the heart is nourishing at every level. If we all truly lived from a place of wholeness and heart health, the world might just change. It might get stronger, and healthier, and happier.

So why not give it a try? February is heart month, so what better time to begin?

Try living from the heart this month, and you might be pleasantly surprised by what happens in your life. You might even decide to move out of your head and move into your heart permanently.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Suzanne Steinbaum.

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