Your Mind Is Your Ally in the Fight Against Afib

Yoga, biofeedback can help calm fast, erratic heartbeat
Young woman practicing yoga

Emotions are closely linked to heart function, and atrial fibrillation is no exception. Experts say patients can use biofeedback and relaxation methods like yoga for a calming effect on afib.

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Atrial fibrillation is a type of heart rhythm disorder in which the top part of your heart beats extremely rapidly and erratically. Getting older increases your risk of atrial fibrillation, and there are more cases of afib in the U.S. now than ever before.

Cardiologists treat afib with medications or ablation, a minimally invasive catheter based procedure. Most of the time, ablation is very successful in treating afib, but there are other ways to manage symptoms and improve your quality of life.

The secret lies at least partly in your mind.

Yoga calms afib in study

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm reported positive results on the practice of yoga in a small clinical study on patients with atrial fibrillation. They reported their findings in EuroHeartCare.

They divided 80 participants into two groups. The first group received traditional medical care but no specific yoga instruction or classes. The second group received the same medical care and also attended a one-hour supervised yoga session each week for three months.

Researchers found that patients in the yoga group lowered their blood pressure and also lowered heart rate by 4 beats per minute.

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Patients in the yoga group also reported an improved quality of life.

The patients in the non-yoga group didn’t report feeling better and their blood pressure and heart rate both increased.

The power of biofeedback

Biofeedback is a structured way to use your mind’s power to control how your body responds to external and internal triggers. Scientists have successfully used biofeedback in treating migraines, epilepsy and anxiety, and now use it to treat heart problems.

The autonomic nervous system controls your body’s involuntary reactions such as heart rate and blood pressure. When out of balance, it can cause the sympathetic branch (the branch that increases heart rate) to work harder and hold back the parasympathetic branch (that slows the heart rate).

This imbalance has clear links to atrial fibrillation.

By using slow abdominal breathing, guided visualization, muscle relaxation and other biofeedback techniques, you can learn to control your body’s “involuntary” reactions to stressful situations (such as irregular heart rate) and help your heart rate become slower and more regular.

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Biofeedback and heart disease

Psychologist Michael G. McKee, PhD, studies the mind-heart connection. He explains that biofeedback is, “Similar to yoga and other forms of relaxation training. Biofeedback is a self-regulation skill, which enables individuals to take better control of their bodies and learn how to control their emotional reactions.”

Using biofeedback techniques, patients watch how their body responds to various stimuli or triggers. These responses appear on a computer screen.

Christine S. Moravec, PhD, Director of Basic Research in the Kaufman Center for Heart Failure at Cleveland Clinic, is at the forefront of research into biofeedback along with Dr. McKee. She says it is a valuable tool in controlling symptoms of afib. “Biofeedback helps to improve control of autonomic nervous system functions, which is important in stabilizing heart rhythm,” she says.

Ongoing research

Researchers are only now beginning to delve into the potential of using biofeedback to help control heart rhythm disorders. Dr. Moravec says, “A number of early studies of biofeedback demonstrated that patients with atrial fibrillation could be taught to control their own physiology, and many of these patients experienced a decrease in episodes of fibrillation.” But she adds, we need more controlled research.

In fighting symptoms of heart disease, your mind can be an important and powerful tool.

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