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Couple by a Lake
Couple by a Lake

Heart Groups


The Heart Group is an innovative program located at Beth Israel Medical Center in NYC for people with heart disease and high risk factors. It was started in 1994 by two clinical social workers, Charles Leighton and Louis Shankman, and was largely based on the work of Dr. Dean Ornish and his revolutionary program for reversing heart disease. Leighton and Shankman were both trained at Dr. Ornish's prestigious Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California and Leighton remains a senior trainer for the Ornish Program. For over twenty years, The Heart Group, which combines group support, stress management and exercise and nutrition goal planning, has helped many people recovering from angioplasty or bypass avoid further procedures. Our members have routinely experienced a reduction in feelings of depression, stress, and isolation, and an increase in energy and overall life satisfaction.

The Heart Group was recently featured in "The Mysterious Human Heart," a PBS documentary, for its innovative approach. We are very pleased to bring this program to The Princeton Group Support Center in Skillman, NJ beginning in April of 2014.

Scientific studies show that a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 80%, and that coronary artery disease can be reversed in some patients through lifestyle alone. Having a healthy heart requires that we pay attention not only to the symptoms of illness but to its underlying causes – the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual stress which are often the root of illness and imbalance. In a safe, non-judgmental environment, group members have an opportunity to share concerns and connect with others who have had similar experiences.
Just this connection factor alone can dramatically affect one's cardiac profile.

Dozens of controlled studies have demonstrated that when we have good social supports - people with whom we can share our stories on a regular basis, without feeling judged, we tend to feel happier, more optimistic and better adjusted. As a result, the likelihood of developing heart disease, cancer, clinical depression, and other chronic illnesses may be dramatically reduced. In his book "Love and Survival", Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the great medical pioneers of the last twenty-five years, stated "I don't know anything that has a greater effect on health, disease and premature death from all causes than the healing power of love and intimacy." He went on to include smoking, too little exercise and poor nutrition as some of the causes of illness which actually pale in comparison to the simple power of love and intimacy. Ornish has also stated that in his groundbreaking program (which is the only scientifically proven program shown to actually reverse coronary artery disease), it was group support that he felt to be the most important part of the program because it fostered these deep connections.

Group support helps reduce depression, anxiety and isolation – emotions which may rival smoking as risk factors for developing heart disease. In addition, group members learn effective coping strategies and techniques for reducing stress which can contribute to high blood pressure, arterial damage and irregular heart beats. 

By reducing and managing stress, participants also learn to control negative behaviors such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise which dramatically effect the development of primary and secondary heart disease.

Teaching how to set realistic and achievable goals is a fundamental part of this group. The group provides both the motivation for change and a kind of monitoring of commitment. Members can set goals around exercise, diet, stress management and other areas in which growth and change are sought. Historically, our members have been able to make lasting changes in areas that have been life long challenges. Having a caring group that is concerned about each member's progress goes a long way toward overcoming those obstacles. Being in a group affords participants the opportunity to reduce isolation, learn from and help others, and increase hope and optimism. (Please see our section on “Essential Points About Support Groups” for a detailed explanation of these benefits.

Finally, members learn effective communication styles that can lead to improvement in primary relationships as well as those at work. Participants often experience a deepening of their family relationships and as a result, a sharp reduction in feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness just from developing a few basic skills in this area.

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