Although dementia continues to touch more lives, the growth of the number of people who live with dementia slowed in recent years and this in part has been linked to better lifestyle choices; “what’s good for your heart is good for your head”.
This was the line Cornwall Council and the NHS used to promote better wellbeing earlier this century, especially for preventable dementias such as vascular dementia, where exercise, stopping smoking, eating more vegetables and fruit, drinking more water etc were part of a lifestyle plan to help people put less pressure on their vascular system and in turn nourish their brain cells rather than starve them to death.
However, too much long-term stress and emotional upset can also contribute to ill-being. Each thought you have and each stressful event you deal with contributes to a complex neuro-chemical response in your body which manifests physically and changes your physical & mental wellbeing.
For example, anger releases adrenalin, which raises blood pressure and can lend you much needed extra strength and alertness in threatening situations. Adrenalin then converts to cortisol which helps your body to shut down unnecessary body functions, like digestion, ready for fight or flight. The anger lends you strength to get through. A little anger-induced stress can power you through and be good for you.
Thoughts pass, stressful events pass; your body has a wonderful homeostatic ability of returning itself to a level of balance.
However, chronic or long-term stress or heightened emotions, such as anger, can take their toll, and the body becomes compromised over time. After all, when you have been under chronic stress, say under pressure at work, how often have you come to take a holiday and you become ill as your compromised immune system struggles to fight off pathogens? It’s so frustrating! But silently, cortisol is clogging up your arteries and compromising your circulatory system; feeding the process of compromising ample nourishment and oxygen to your brain, especially if you hold an angry grudge. Eventually, this may contribute to cognitive impairment and vascular dementia among other diseases.
There are other ways to look after your heart and therapy can help you do that. Some prefer hands-on therapy from a bodywork professional, others a talking-head therapy such as counsellors, cognitive behavioural therapists or life coaches. You also need to build in essential self-nurturing to regulate yourself & reset your homeostasis. Every stress you have requires a eu-stress, an anti-stress if you like.
One of the ways of doing this is to let go of old beliefs that no longer serve your health. There is a huge body of evidence which illustrates forgiving others or events who you feel have wronged or hurt you can be a powerful way of letting go of anger or hatred that no longer serves you. You may have to forgive that person or situation time and again to truly work through letting go and forgiving until you let go of the pain and anger completely. This includes self-forgiveness.
Exercising regular forgiveness can reduce depression, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Depression has been linked to increased incidences of dementia too. It’s about addressing your health as a whole.
When someone in your life has dementia, and their memories become less tangible or accessible, it can be a great opportunity to forgive them any wrongs of the past. Likewise, they may no longer associate you with your past wrongdoings as their dementia strips them of those memories. Here is an opportunity to redefine a relationship. As someone living with dementia loses more of their cognition, feelings matter more in the moment. If in their presence you feel love, compassion and forgiveness, they will pick up on this just as much as hatred, resentment and anger. Using nurturing touch and massage can convey these feelings, and the impact of what you are both feeling becomes more powerful. Positive, nurturing touch releases oxytocin for both the giver & recipient, instilling trust, feelings of attachment, lowering blood pressure and boosting immunity.
New relationships or new definitions of relationships can be formed and positive touch with consent can help facilitate this. New pathways can be laid down in our brains due its wonderful neuroplasticity; different roads can be walked. It may not be easy, but it may be better for both of you in the long run as you let go of old feelings and stressors that no longer serve you. This can result in peace in your heart and head you. You take back control and forgive not necessarily because they deserve it; that is not what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is about freeing yourself from that which holds you back.
So when you look after your heart with a view to looking after your head, know that your diet, your water intake, moderating cigarette and alcohol, consumption, are just as important as letting go of emotions and stressors, acting with compassion and forgiving, and this is completely in your grasp if you choose. Practice, practice, practice gratitude, kindness & forgiveness… the scientists say it’s good for our health!
Wishing you all more peace, love, laughter and healthy hearts, Nicolle
Ref: Kyler R Rasmussen et al 2019