The HeartMath Institute or HeartMath, Inc. is an organization that has existed for many years. Their technology can be used to relieve stress and improve health and performance. Training on the HeartMath technology is very simple and a person can be taught how to use different techniques to calm negative emotions to improve their own stress. With this technology, a person can utilize a handheld device that gives immediate feedback on the physiologic changes that are improving heart rate variability and coherence. In this blog I will discuss how the HeartMath Institute explains this self-treatment modality and how it can be of benefit to anyone wanting to decrease their stress and improve their overall health and performance.
“Recent biomedical research has revealed that the heart is not merely a simple pump, but actually a highly complex, self-organized information-processing center. With each beat, the heart continuously communicates with the brain and body via the nervous system, hormonal system, bioelectromagnetic interactions and other pathways. At HeartMath Institute, researchers are demonstrating that the messages the heart sends to the brain not only affect physiological regulation, but also can profoundly influence perception, emotions, behavior, performance and health.”
In a discussion of stress and what defines the essence of the experience of stress, HeartMath states that from a psychophysiological perspective, emotions are central to the experience of stress. It is the emotions activated in response to perceiving a stimulus as threatening that cause stress. In fact, feelings such as anxiety, irritation, frustration, helplessness or hopelessness are truly what we experience when we describe ourselves as stressed. Even though mental processing and physical responses play a role in stress, it is unmanaged emotions that provide fuel for our stress. Stress is truly emotional unease.
And it is extremely important for us to learn some daily practice to manage our emotions and stress response because stress is not simply a benign complaint; it is a powerful risk factor for disease and an important predictor for health. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2007), there is a documented link between stress and an increased risk for heart attacks, depression, cancer, and the progression of HIV and AIDS. Also, another article in the same issue of JAMA shows that workplace stress may be as bad for one’s heart as smoking and high cholesterol.
HeartMath also explains how emotions effect our thinking and our physiology. For example, the neural connections that transmit information from the emotional centers to the cognitive centers in the brain are stronger and more numerous than those that convey information from the cognitive to the emotional centers. This explains the powerful influence of input from the emotional system on virtually all stages of cognitive processing involved in functions such as attention, perception and memory; as well as on higher order thought processes like logical reasoning and rational decision-making. We all can relate to situations in which we have become emotionally distraught and during this emotional upset we cannot think straight and are completely unproductive until we can calm down enough to begin processing mental information again.
John and Beatrice Lacey during the 1960’s and 1970’s through psychophysiological research, observed that sensory input to the brain from the heart and cardiovascular system could either inhibit or increase the brain’s activity, which could affect perception, motor activity and behavior.
You see, emotions activate the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal adrenal axis, leading to changes in the activity and function of the body’s systems and organs. Thus many of the deleterious effects of stress on the brain and body are in fact physiological repercussions of negative emotions:
Activation of the stress response involves two major neural and neuroendocrine response pathways:
- Neuroendocrine hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis
- Autonomic Nervous System comprising Sympathetics and Parasympathetics
The main sympathetic neurotransmitter is norepinephrine and the primary hormones are epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. These chemicals when released due to a stress reaction increase heart rate and cause constriction of blood vessels to increase blood pressure and divert blood flow away from skin to muscles. This is a pattern of cardiovascular response known as a “threat” pattern.
The main parasympathetic neurotransmitter is achetylcholine and its major communication is from the brain (central nervous system) to the periphery through the vagus nerve. This system innervates the gut, liver, spleen, lungs and heart. The vagus nerve when activated generally provides a brake to the systems, tending to slow heart rate and reduce blood pressure allowing for improved digestion and breathing.
The fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system can be activated by the emotional center of our brain, the amygdala, thereby bypassing conscious cognitive processing. This is why when people are threatened, they tend to react first and think about their actions later. And, because emotional arousal can dominate the mental landscape, it is difficult to willfully turn off or take control of strong emotions with thought alone. What works better is to walk away from an emotional situation, calm down and shift away from the negative emotional experience so that one can think rationally.
If a person is constantly faced with emotional distress the brain starts to identify with this pattern as normal. Past experience builds within us a set of familiar patterns which are maintained or stored in the brain’s neural architecture. Rhythmic patterns become established in the physiology for heart rate, respiration, hormonal rhythms, muscle tension and fascial expressions. Excess worry or stress can become so familiar to the brain and body that unless an individual is worrying or feeling anxious, he or she is uncomfortable. Once worry or anxiety become the familiar reference pattern, the brain keeps defaulting to worried or anxious feelings and thoughts to maintain a sense of familiarity. In order to change, new patterns must be created and they must become the established pattern.
This is where HeartMath and its technology that focuses on coherence and heart rate variability can help. Coherence means correlation, a sticking together, connectedness or consistency in a system. For example, we refer to a person’s speech or thought as coherent if the parts fit together well; and, incoherent if they are uttering meaningless nonsense, or presenting ideas that do not flow or make sense as a whole. Thus, coherence refers to a wholeness and a global order. It is important to note that all systems, to produce any function or action, must have global coherence. Global coherence does not mean that everyone or all parts are doing the same thing all the time. A jazz band, for example, has individual musicians that are each playing their respective parts, yet keeping in tune and step with the whole band.
In physics, the concept of coherence is also used to describe the interaction or coupling among different oscillating systems in which synchronization is the key idea. Synchronization describes the degree to which two or more waves are either in phase together, or when communication occurs between systems or modes without obstruction. In physiology, coherence is used to describe the degree of coupling and harmonious interaction between two or more of the body’s oscillatory systems such as respiration and heart rhythms. There are times in which they operate at different frequencies, and times when they become entrained and oscillate at the same frequency.
Greater coherence amongst body systems leads to efficiency and effectiveness and promotes ease and pleasure; whereas, systems incoherence can lead to chaos and dysfunction. Focusing on respiration and heart rhythm is how HeartMath teaches people to facilitate our global coherence. We can learn to bring greater order into individual systems within our own body by increasing the auto-coherence or efficiency of a single oscillating system such as heart rhythm. By learning how to improve the coherence in one’s heart rhythm, other systems can be pulled into synchronous activity, thus leading toward global coherence and increasing efficiency and harmony.
Besides improving coherence, HeartMath aims to improve a person’s heart rate variability. It was once believed that the beating of the heart at rest is monotonously regular, but research has shown that the rhythm of a healthy heart even at rest is surprisingly irregular. This means that the time or space between each beat of the heart is not meant to be regular.
In fact, scientists and physicians consider heart rate variability (HRV) to be an important indicator of overall health and fitness. HRV reflects the ability to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands. Aging is one factor that impacts the amount of variability, with most individuals typically losing 3% to 5% every year. Abnormally low HRV relative to one’s age, is a strong and independent predictor of future health problems, including all types of mortality, as well as a psychophysiological marker of emotional regulation and psychological adjustment.
So, methods to enhance one’s coherence and heart rate variability generally involve the active engagement of positive emotions, such as appreciation, gratitude, or compassion. Psychologically, coherence is more than simply a relaxed state. Coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.
At the emotional level, use of the HeartMath system has shown across diverse populations to produce significant reductions in depression, anxiety, anger, hostility, burnout and fatigue; and, corresponding increases in caring, contentment, gratitude, peacefulness and vitality. Other research has shown that coherence-building techniques produce significant reductions in key health-risk factors, such as blood pressure, sugar control, and cholesterol.
HeartMath explains one study done at the Pacemaker Clinic for Kaiser Hospitals in Orange County, California, which was conducted as an internal study on the use of HeartMath interventions in patients suffering with atrial fibrillation. Seventy-five patients were selected randomly to receive training with the HeartMath tools. The patients, once trained, were asked to work with the program for three months. At the end of the three months, the patients were individually interviewed to assess what benefits they had derived from using the HeartMath tools regularly. Seventy-one of the 75 patients reported substantial improvements in their physical and emotional health. 56 patients were able to better control their paroxysmal atrial fibrillation and hypertension to the extent that they were able to decrease their antiarrhythmic and hypertension medications, with their physician’s approval. Fourteen were able to discontinue their antiarrhythmic medications altogether.
Training with the HeartMath tools is not difficult and can be done in groups or with individuals. The handheld devices are then used on a daily basis by an individual to improve their coherence and heart rate variability, which in turn helps bring global coherence to all of one’s body systems.
If you would like to schedule an individual session to learn how to utilize the HeartMath tools and technology; or, you would like to find out when our next group training will be held call the T. Murray Wellness Center, Inc. today at (603) 447-3112.