Erika Shershun, MA, MFT
Updated: Jan 18
I first realized the physical imprint trauma is capable of leaving on one's heart years ago while lying on a massage table receiving Reiki. A vivid image appeared in my mind's eye of my own heart's radiance struggling to break through the cracks of a dark opaque outer shell. I knew at once that my healing would not be complete until this layer was shed. It's not that I was without the capacity to love, I loved deeply, rather, what I came to learn years later while training to be a Somatic Psychotherapist was that the image and the accompanying sensations symbolized a physical constriction of the muscles around my heart. This constricting or armoring had developed as an attempt to protect; it happens out of fear, yet this shield was no longer serving me.
The heart is universally associated with love; it is the center of all emotion. Most of us have hearts that also, for varying lengths of time, emanate anxieties, fears, sorrows, aversions, and defenses. We build physical defenses in an attempt to keep threats away, yet these defenses come at a cost, often by closing us off to much of the world. This is because fear is contractive, pulling back, while love is embracing, reaching out. When we are able to feel safe and secure within, our hearts open and the world expands.
"Openness leads to loss of defensiveness, it leads to acceptance of others, from this acceptance comes compassion because when you look inside anyone else's heart you feel your heart." - Deepak Chopra
Rhythm of Love
Regulated by the autonomic nervous system, our heart rate is constantly speeding up and slowing down. Years of research from the HeartMath Institute have found harmonious heart rhythms with greater heart rate variability (HRV) to be indicators of cardiovascular health and general wellbeing. Our heart rhythms mirror our emotional states. Emotions usually regarded as negative (fear, anger, disdain) result in disordered and irregular heart rate variability while those regarded as positive (love, compassion, gratitude) create improved HRV.
Positive emotions also down regulate the sympathetic nervous system calming the fight or flight response when no real threat is present, and increase parasympathetic activity, which controls our ability to "rest and digest" or "feed and breed".
The body’s most powerful electromagnetic field radiates from the heart. When the rhythms of the heart become coherent its electromagnetic field also improves coherence, transmitting waves of healing throughout the body mind and brain. The heart's rhythm has the capacity to bring all of the body's systems into a state of synchronization and entrainment.
In the Somatic training I referenced earlier my teacher, Bill Bowen, taught that Ideally we are looking for a brain heart entrainment. When the brain entrains to the heart, connectivity increases and mental dialogue is reduced. When our focus is on the brain, disconnection from the body increases, therefore, "to create entrainment you have to get out of your head" and connect from the heart center. "Chances are you will feel a little more vulnerable," yet "vulnerability is the pre-requisite for both courage and creativity." If you push through the discomfort it's a win, win.
In Openness There Is Strength
Strength and empowerment emerge from a calm, centered and relaxed body rather than a constricted and rigid one. There are several techniques to soften our defenses, open the heart and improve coherence, entrainment, and HRV. These include breath practices, mindfulness, and the cultivation of appreciation, nonjudgment, and forgiveness.
Practice Breathing With An Open Heart:
Make yourself comfortable, with shoulders in a relaxed and open position.
Bring focus to your breath.
Give yourself permission to release any tension or stress with each out breath, seeing if you can settle into a sense of calm and relaxation in your body.
Now breathe into the center of your chest, the center of your being, as you direct the breath to your heart.
With each inhalation imagine that your breath embodies love, warmth, and kindness as you feel your heart soften and open.
Inhale love and nurturance, exhale tension and stress...
To enhance the practice place one or both hands on your sternum softly resting across your heart. Notice what sensations are present, and the quality of the movement beneath your hands.
You might invite your exhale to lengthen, as though it were a gentle breeze flowing from your lungs.
Continue to focus on breathing into your heart center. If your mind wanders come back to the breath for just a little longer. It may help to think of a positive memory, one that brings about feelings of peace, joy, or love, or to visualize your in breath filling your heart with light.
When you feel ready to end the practice scan your body. Notice if you feel more open, expansive, calm, or relaxed than when you began.
For a more high tech approach to your practice HeartMath sells a devise to monitor HRV and increase coherence to be used with the Inner Balance app, it sells for around $125. If that's out of your price range the BreathingZone app helps improve coherence (minus the HRV device) for about $3.
"Those who feel cut off have to learn how to practice so that they will feel connected again with the source of life that has brought them here. That by itself can help bring them into the heart of life and remove all kinds of fear." - Thich Nhat Hanh
With practice our goal is to cultivate an accepting, soft, and spacious awareness toward whatever is occurring in the present moment. I'm happy to share that feelings of constriction around my heart are very rare these days; the dark outer shell has dissolved as I've healed and integrated traumas from the past, allowing for more ease, empathy and connection.