Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Neurofeedback Heart

I have wanted to blog for a long time but, like many others, have just never found the time. Well, I am making the time. You see, I have an almost-2-year-old who I care for pretty much every waking, non-working, moment. So the only time I have to write is when he is sleeping. And when he is sleeping, I am usually in the car. So that’s the way it has to be for now.

I live in Providence Rhode Island and find myself cruising the nearby parks in the early afternoon searching for a quiet place to park. Today I decided to cruise neighborhoods instead, in search of a wireless network that does not have security enabled. It took about 15 minutes cruising the perimeter of Roger Williams Park. So here I am at an undisclosed location typing away on my computer.

I thought I might write about heart palpitations, since this has been a concern that has dominated my life for the past five years and has recently been at least partly overcome. I figure there might be others out there who might benefit from my experience. I can’t guaranty results, of course. If you have this problem you should certainly see a trained specialist and take their advice. If, however, you are like me and have a suspicion that the problem might be something you can solve through meditation and other mind/body exercises, read on.

About five years ago I suffered what I would describe as an acute panic attack. I was in a stressful job and living in a stressful neighborhood. I had gotten into the habit of being stressed out. In fact, even when there was nothing immediate to cause me stress I would think something up and fixate on it. Was there dry-rot in my walls? Was the cat getting sick? Was the milk going bad? About that same time I began to notice an irregular heartbeat. At night, lying in bed, I could hear my heart throbbing while I lay awake worrying about the shingles that had blown off in the most recent rain storm. The issue came to a head after an argument with my boss. I worked myself into such a state that my heart began racing completely out of control. I began to feel strangely and asked one of my coworkers to bring me to the hospital. The nurse confirmed that my blood pressure was sky high. Two hours later, after a talk with a very reassuring cardiologist, it had dropped back to a normal level.

This was very concerning for me for more than just the obvious reasons. You see, my father's father died of a heart attack when he was in his mid sixties. My father suffered his first massive heart attack at the age of 53. At the time of the incident described above I was only thirty six. I didn't have any intention of going down the path of my father and grandfather.

I began seeing the cardiologist who had examined me in the hospital. He ran a battery of tests on me which eventually included a harness that I wore for a month. I would record irregular heartbeats and send them to a service where a reassuring receptionist would, invariably, tell me that they were not serious. The strange thing about the process was that my heart seemed to work best when I was sitting in my cardiologist’s office. It was late at night, mostly when I was not wearing the harness, that my blood pressure would rise and my heart would spin out of control. In the end my cardiologist simply gave up. “There is nothing physically wrong with your heart” he said. “I can’t treat problems that do not have physical origins.” And that was that. I have since visited him once per year for a check up to make sure that physical issues have not arisen from all of this irregularity. None has.

It began to be clear to me that my heart issues were situational. It was also clear that they were yet another source of stress. A skipped beat would send my blood pressure up and then seemed to lead to further heart irregularities. When I felt relaxed, happy and safe, I could usually count on a steady, quiet heart. But I was not good at being relaxed and happy. Far from it, I was much more adept at being just the opposite.

Incomplete solutions:
I began to assess the sources of my stress and to eliminate them as best I could. I left my job and reduced my work schedule. I began to practice yoga again after a five-year hiatus. I meditated more often. I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine. Each of these changes helped a little. Sometimes they would solve the problem for a week or so. But inevitably the palpitations would return. It was as if there was some mechanism in my body that could briefly be fooled by a false sense of calm then, rising again from the depths of my subconscious, would reassert control over my heartbeat.

I spent several years running down dead end streets. I tried visualizing my heart and willing it to slow, I tried exercising to the point of exhaustion. I tried researching other peoples’ solutions to the problem. I tried pressure points. None of these solutions would work completely. After four years chasing my own tail I had almost completely given up.

Light at the end of the tunnel:
Then one day I read an article in Ode Magazine about something that I would usually have dismissed as new age foolishness. It was an article about Neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, it explained, was accomplished by hooking up the patient to a machine via electrodes. The brain waves are then analyzed and categorized into what is referred to as an “EEG Spectrum”. This spectrum can be monitored on a screen. People who are stressed and depressed tend to emit one type of brain wave, people who are working on mathematical equations might emit another, people who are well practiced in transcendental meditation might emit another while meditating. The article asserted that, by the use of these machines, people can train themselves to emit brain waves that correspond to more positive moods and behaviors. By doing this, people claim to have become more focused, more relaxed and, in general, more healthy in body and mind.

Now I don’t know how much of this is trash and how much is science. I am not going to try and sell you a book on Neurofeedback. I have not written one and have never read one. I have only had this one brief exposure to it. It did, however, clear up two issues for me. Firstly, although it might seem strange to an outsider, I had never considered the possibility that I might be depressed. I am not a depressive type, at least superficially. I tend to put on a brave face in just about any situation. Expressing my emotions was never my strong suit. So nobody I know would ever have described me as depressed. In fact, when I mention this to friends they invariably reply that I never seemed depressed to them. But I was. That was my first realization.

My second realization was the more obvious one, that being that brain waves might actually be physically manifesting themselves in the regularity or irregularity of my heart beat. I began to observe how I felt when I was having these heart beats. I was usually stressed but was I happy or sad? Was my outlook on things positive or negative? I began to realize that my heart would beat more irregularly only when I was down. When I felt happy and optimistic, my heart would settle down.

This revelation explained some of my earlier failures. For instance, I might start exercising and feel optimistic at first about the results. It is only natural that exercise would give me more energy and a better attitude. Then something would happen that would upset me, perhaps only temporarily. The resulting bad mood would trigger an irregular heart beat which would depress me further. I would then come to the conclusion whatever I was doing was not a cure for my condition and would, again, sink into a deeper depression.

With the realization that my heart beat was affected by my moods, I began to use my heart as an EEG Spectrum monitor. I also began to realize that I had partly chosen to be depressed and negative in my overall outlook on life. There was always something to complain about. Conversation seemed to flow better when I was being negative about something, even if I had a smile while doing it. It is sometimes appealing to wallow in negative moods and it takes lots of energy to lift oneself out of it. Whenever I did cheer myself up, however, I could calm my irregular heartbeat almost immediately.

So my conclusion was that depression, not just stress, was causing my heart issues. Eliminating the depression has significantly cut down on the heart palpitations. I can now drink alcohol in moderation (it is a depressant, after all) and I can drink caffeine in moderation as well. I also continue with the yoga and meditation as they help to keep me in a positive mood and gives me the strength to keep a good attitude when facing difficult situations.

This is certainly not a cure for heart disease and I don’t know if anyone else can benefit from this experience. But perhaps, just perhaps, it can improve your life. Please let me know if it works for you. I would also be interested in hearing from people who have used EEG Spectrum machines and Neurofeedback to alleviate their own heart problems. Perhaps there are others who have suffered depression and heart palpitations and, after overcoming their depression in some other way, have been able to overcome the heart palpitations as well.

Please let me know.


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