HeartMath

HeartMath is a form of biofeedback therapy which helps with stress management, encourages resilience, and mental performance and health.

It works by teaching you to synchronise your brain waves with your heart beat, so that they are “coherent”. It does this by training you to optimise your heartbeat to levels that are normally only possible with specific meditation or yoga.

Heart coherence was first described in 1992 by physicist Dan Winter and popularised by the Institute of HeartMath based in Boulder Creek, California. Their work has been developed further by others in Europe, such as Dr Alan Watkins based in London.

The benefits of cultivating heart coherence

Heart coherence can help develop the following areas of behaviour, all of which are key to mental health:

  • Impulse control
  • Self-calming
  • Delayed gratification
  • Self-motivation
  • Perseverance despite frustration
  • Self-regulation of moods
  • Ability to change/transcend our feelings

The 'Heart Power' tools

There are several tools available to help you practice HeartMath and increase heart coherence. Most only take a few minutes, and yet have a profoundly beneficial effect on your physiology.

When practiced even just a few minutes a day, HeartMath increases the harmony between your brain and body, reduces your stress response, and increases the energy which can be directed towards healing and regeneration.

In the beginning, it can feel like an effort to practice these exercises, but with a little bit of practice and discipline, it can become second nature, and you will want to do it more and more as you feel the health benefits.

These are the ‘Heart Power’ tools:

When you focus on feelings of appreciation and practice gratitude, your body, nervous system, and brain work in greater harmony.

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight
  • Or simply stop what you’re doing, wherever you are
  • Connect with your breathing
  • Think of all the things that you are appreciative of and grateful for in your life
  • Let them wash over you
  • Feel them in your body as you breathe in and out
  • You can imagine them flow in and out through your heart
  • You can also keep a list of feelings of appreciation and gratitude in a journal

We are constantly judging – people, situations, ourselves, etc.

Yet all judgements are based on incomplete information and subject to our prejudices and belief systems, because our brain has to block out a lot of input in order to function.

When we judge, we tend to block out further understanding and new intelligence. Practicing non-judgement is also a way to increase heart coherence, calming the nervous system and increasing harmony between our body and mind.

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight
  • Or simply stop what you’re doing, wherever you are
  • Connect with your breathing
  • Notice any judgemental thoughts you may be having about yourself, others and your situation
  • Notice them, and let them go
  • You can then focus on kindness, appreciation and gratitude towards yourself, others and your situation

Practicing forgiveness increases heart coherence, bringing body and mind into harmony.

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight
  • Or simply stop what you’re doing, wherever you are
  • Connect with your breathing
  • Think of anything or anyone who has angered or hurt you
  • Notice these feelings of anger and pain, and let them go
  • Replace them with forgiving, empathetic thoughts towards these people or situations
  • You can also write down your thoughts about forgiveness in a journal

Techniques

The HeartMath Techniques provide a framework within which you can practice using your heart power tools, even in stressful circumstances.

This exercise allows you to check in with yourself. All you need is a pen, paper:

  • Make two columns, one titled ‘Assets’ and ‘Deficits’
  • Under ‘Assets’, write down any recent events that felt good, and gave you feelings of energy and harmony
    • Positive interactions with others
    • Creative time
    • Moments where you’re proud of your response
    • Moments where you could have been upset but chose a different path
    • Acts of kindness
    • Acts of self care that made you feel good
    • Write + 1 next to each asset
  • Under ‘Deficits’ write down the events that felt incoherent, as if they drained your energy
    • Miscommunications
    • Over-giving to others
    • Overreactions
    • Write -1 next to each deficit
  • Overall score = (Sum of assets) – (Sum of deficits)
    • If your answer is below 0, you’re not in equilibrium, and you need to take action
  • Once you are able to identify emotions and actions which establish a deficit, you must either change your behaviour, or try to change your attitude towards your actions and reactions

This technique allows us to access the intuitive intelligence of the heart, away from our head-space thoughts which often keep us ruminating in our heads:

  • Find a quiet place and close your eyes
  • Shift your focus to the heart area — you can place both hands on your heart
  • Imagine breathing slowly through the heart for 10-15 seconds
  • Focus on gratitude and love for someone, or something in your life
  • Hold your focus, and if it drifts, bring it back to the heart
  • Do this for 5-15 minutes
  • Gently send the feeling of love, or care, or gratitude to yourself or others
  • Write down any intuitive feelings or thoughts that accompany this feeling of inner peace and harmony to help you remember them next time you are in need

Childre, D. and Martin, H. (1999). The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, pp. 211-24.

Research shows that a group of people practicing Heart Lock-in experience significant increases in levels of the main immunoglobulin used by the immune system to identify and neutralize pathogens such as bacteria and viruses (IgA).

People who listened to Heart Zones music (designed to facilitate mental and emotional balance) also experienced an increase in IgA levels McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Rein, G. and Watkins, A. D. (1996). Music enhances the effect of positive emotional states. [online] Stress Medicine, 12, pp. 167-75. Available at: https://www.heartmath.org/assets/uploads/2015/01/music-iga.pdf [accessed 5 Oct.
2017]..

Those who used the technique, while listening to the music, experienced by far the greatest increase in IgA levels Childre, D. L. (1991). Heart Zones. Boulder Creek, CA: Planetary Publications..

This technique can help us recognise the unconscious emotional memories which influence our thoughts and feelings, long after the event has passed. It then allows us to reprogram these pathways to change how we react in the future.

  • Bring your attention to your heart and solar plexus — you can place your hands there
  • Breathe as if through this area for at least 10 seconds to anchor your attention there
  • Bring to mind an unpleasant feeling or issue you are dealing with
  • Observe it from the outside, as if it does not concern you, but is someone else’s problem
  • Take as long as you need to relax around any disturbing or confusing feelings, and try to dissolve their significance in the compassion of the heart
  • Remember that it’s not the problem itself which is causing you stress or anger or sadness, but rather the way you react to it – the amount of significance you give to the problem is what gives it meaning
  • Ask your heart for appropriate guidance or insight
  • If nothing happens immediately, focus on appreciation for something or someone

The HeartMath Institute did a study showing that Cut-Thru creates an increase in DHEA levels (linked to immunity and youth) and a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. Childre, D., Martin, H. and Beech, D. (2000). The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco: Harper Collins, pp. 203-4..

If your life were a movie, freeze frame would be your personal pause button. It empowers you by giving you a clear perspective on any moment, so that you can decide how to act in the next moment. It enables you to tap into your ‘common sense’, and calms your urge to react.

  • As soon as you feel stressed, freeze-frame the moment — put yourself in a time out
  • Shift your focus from your racing mind and scattered thoughts
  • Hold your focus on your heart-area for ten seconds or more
  • Imagine breathing through your heart
  • Recall a positive or fun feeling, and try to re-experience it
  • Ask yourself/your heart: what would be a more efficient response to the situation, one that would minimize future stress?
  • Listen to what your heart has to say in answer to that question

The Science of Cardiac Coherence

The automatic peripheral nervous system regulates our organ function without our conscious control. It has two branches:

  • The sympathetic branch:
    • Releases adrenaline /noradrenaline
    • Speeds up heart rate (‘The accelerator’)
  • The parasympathetic branch:
    • Releases acetylcholine (neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation)
    • Slows down the heart (‘The brake’)

Ideally, we alternate between ‘the brake’ and ‘the accelerator’, so that the heart slows down and speeds up, establishing equilibrium over time. On a graph, this produces the image of a harmonious wave.

When we’re in a state of cardiac coherence, our ideas flow naturally, and we adapt easily to new circumstances. We don’t have to be calm, and our environment doesn’t have to be peaceful for this to occur; it’s about finding a sense of flow.

Benefits of practicing heart coherence

There are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects of practicing heart coherence.

A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology has demonstrated that the very act of recollecting a positive emotion or pleasurable scene rapidly provokes a transition of heart rate variability towards a phase of coherence, which may lead to a state of maximum coherence lasting for over 30 minutes McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tiller, W. A., Rein, G. and Watkins, A. D. (1995). The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability. [online] American Journal of Cardiology, 76 (14), pp. 1089-93. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7484873 [accessed 18 Sept. 2017].

After training in heart coherence

  • The proportion of employees in large companies who said they are ‘anxious’ declined from 33% to 5%
  • Those who said they were ‘dissatisfied’ fell from 30% to 9%
  • Those who described themselves as ‘angry’ fell from 20 per cent to 8%

Servan-Schrieiber, D. (2005). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Rodale, p. 71..

After training in heart coherence

  • Percentage of DHEA, the ‘youth’ hormone, doubled
  • 23% decrease in cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Women displayed a distinct improvement in their premenstrual symptoms, including less irritability, depression and fatigue

McCraty, R., Barrios-Choplin, B., Rozman, D., Atkinson, M. and Watkins, A. D. (1998). The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. [online] Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33 (2), pp. 151-70. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9737736 [accessed 18 Sept. 2017]., Servan-Schrieiber, D. (2005). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Rodale, p. 69.

In one example, 6000 executives from major corporations such as Shell, BP, HP and Unilever participated in a training course on heart coherence. A month after the training, blood pressure decreased

  • As great as would have been expected after a 9 kg weight loss
  • Twice as great as it would have been following a salt-free diet