If you were going to pinpoint a single cause of a host of modern degenerative illness, you'd be right to single out stress. Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, cancer, suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, lung disease and accidents—the six leading causes of death in the US.
It's the condition that most keeps doctors in business and us out of work. The American Psychological Association estimates that over 75 per cent of all visits to the doctor are for problems related to stress and, according to the Labour Force Survey in the UK, approximately 11.7 million working days were lost due to stress in 2015-2016.
Meditation and mindfulness techniques have been shown to have a positive impact on stress and many other aspects of human health. Even traditional medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic in the US recommend meditation on their website as a way to create calm and inner peace (see www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858).
But now, scientists and researchers at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, claim to have discovered a potentially even more effective path to mental and physical health.
The heart-brain connection
For thousands of years, the human heart has been associated with love, compassion, caring, wisdom and courage. Unfortunately, ever since the rise of the Age of Reason in 18th-century France and England, the intellect—and seat of the intellect, the brain—has ascended to supremacy, and the importance of heart-based thinking and intuition have largely lost their credibility.
But for the last 26 years, scientists and researchers at the HeartMath Institute research center in California have dedicated themselves to bringing the human heart back into the health equation by conducting extensive clinical research into heart function and physiology.
Founded in 1991 by 'Doc' Lew Childre, the Institute's mission has been to discover the mechanisms the heart uses to communicate with the brain (thereby influencing information-processing, perception, emotions and health) and, through the for-profit arm of the company (HeartMath LLC), to develop methods to help people bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into a balanced head-heart alignment.
According to Rollin McCraty, PhD, vice president and director of research, when measured by electrocardiography (ECG), the electrical field of the heart is found to be approximately 60 times more powerful than the electrical field of the brain.1
The heart has an intricate nervous system—a network of neurons and neurotransmitters similar to those found in the brain—that sends a tremendous amount of regulatory information about the body's nervous system to the brain, while detecting and regulating hormones and neurochemicals as well as cardiovascular function and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The heart also releases peptides that stimulate other organs to release hormones affecting our mood,2 while heart-related disease can affect cognitive brain function.3
What's more, the heart has been found to act independently of the brain, directing responses to situations before our brain has had time to figure
In the course of their work, scientists at HeartMath have discovered that the key to understanding how the heart and our emotions interact lies in something called 'heart rate variability' (HRV), the rhythmic patterns of our heart beats. They've learned that negative emotions and stress can lead to more disorder in the heart's rhythms and the ANS, with negative effects on the rest of the body and overall health.4
Conversely, they also discovered that positive emotions, such as gratitude and appreciation, create harmony in heart rhythms and the entire nervous system, so boosting the body's immune system,5 and positively affecting a person's health and mental state.6
Deborah Rozman, PhD, president and co-CEO of the Institute, says that the effect of sustaining positive thoughts is potentially even more effective than meditation and other relaxation techniques for reducing overall stress. Relaxation from meditation and other similar techniques creates a state of rest for both the body and mind, producing a low-amplitude heart rhythm and increased parasympathetic activity (the opposite of the fight-or-flight response),7 whereas sustaining positive emotions creates an energized responsive state characterized by highly ordered, smooth heart rhythm patterns—what HeartMath refers to as 'coherence'. The result is closer synchrony between the body's physiological, cognitive and psychoemotional systems, which is maintained during everyday functioning, with effects on everything from perception and creativity to longevity.7
In fact, HeartMath has set out to demonstrate that the ability to be in control and function responsively in stressful situations is more effective than 'turning off' and dissociating from what's going on, which happens with methods like meditation. Studies show that high levels of perceived self-control over situations that come up in daily life lead to a substantial decrease in psychological stress,8 as well as a reduction in deaths among older men and women, after all other health-related factors have been adjusted for.9 In fact, creating this kind of coherent psychophysiological state has a far greater effect on the electrical potentials of heart-rhythm patterns.
"As the heart's rhythm pattern becomes more synchronized and coherent, it's synchronizing the brain, the nervous system, and all the body's oscillating systems into that same rhythm," says Rozman. "So it has five times the power of simple relaxation on the power potential scale.7 It's why, I think, we often see results with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) very quickly and the same with reductions in anxiety."
HeartMath scientists have developed a number of modern technologies using the direct correlation between heart rhythm, positive emotions and health to help people reduce stress, improve performance, and enhance health and wellbeing. Inner Balance, a HeartMath app that can be downloaded to an iPhone or Android device, detects heart rhythm, as measured by HRV, in real time while an audio programme coaches the user through something called the Quick Coherence Technique (see box, page 61).
As the user sits quietly and deliberately brings a positive emotion to mind (love, caring or appreciation, for example) by evoking a memory that stimulates such emotions, the software displays heart rate and HRV readings. As the positive feelings strengthen, the HRV readings get closer and closer to 'green' levels, the optimal level of HRV.
The emWave2 (pronounced M-wave), a hand-held device that uses a thumbprint sensor or infrared ear sensor to read HRV and heart rhythms, provides both visual and audio feedback. A series of blue LED lights on the side of the device pulse rhythmically and, by breathing in time with the blue lights, you can regulate your breath and calm yourself down, with positive effects on your HRV.
The emWave2 can also be linked to a computer, which then displays graphs of your HRV, both the current one and your accumulated HRV score over time. The emWave2 programme also contains interactive games and emotional 'visualizers' (calming pictures) to add variety to the biofeedback training.
The emWave Pro, intended for health professionals, is a software programme that uses a pulse sensor plugged into a USB port to collect pulse data, then translates this information into user-friendly graphics displayed on a computer screen to provide clients with heart rhythm training in real time as they practise the breathing and visualization techniques that help them access positive emotional states quickly.
HeartMath's techniques and devices have even been adopted by Fortune 500 companies, government and police organizations, hospitals, clinics and schools, and thousands of individuals worldwide. According to Rozman, in over 15,000 pre- and post-assessments conducted by professional organizations using HeartMath technologies, participants have averaged a 60 per cent reduction in depression, a 40 per cent drop in anxiety and a 30 per cent improvement in sleep when they consistently used the devices and programme techniques a few times a day.
In one study, using HeartMath techniques for three months resulted in significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure in people with high blood pressure.10 Another study, at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, divided patients with asthma into four groups: (1) those given HRV biofeedback and doing abdominal breathing techniques; (2) those given HRV feedback on its own; (3) those given sham biofeedback based on EEGs; and (4) those on a waiting list for treatment. Compared with the latter two groups, those getting the HRV biofeedback had fewer asthma symptoms and were able to reduce their dependence on steroids.11
HRV biofeedback has also been shown to reduce pain and depression in fibromyalgia sufferers,12 while a Stanford University study evaluating the impact of HeartMath training on elderly patients with moderate-to-severe congestive heart failure not only led to significantly less stress and depression, but also significantly improved their physical capacity.12
Travis Slonecker, a licensed clinical social worker at the Fort Knox Army installation in Kentucky, works with returned combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He says the HeartMath technologies and programmes have proved to be useful tools for helping these vets build "a safe and calm place" to go to in their minds and for inducing overall relaxation.
The techniques have also proved effective for helping them get back into civilian life. "The first benefits veterans report is they don't get angry as quickly and don't lash out at their families as much," says Rozman. "The technology helps to keep their hearts open to their families and it improves their sleep."
Currently, scientists at HeartMath are researching complex traumas, such as those endured by people who've been tortured and by children in battle zones who've seen their parents killed—events that leave very strong imprints with a load of negative implications for the sense of self.
"A lot of trauma comes down to self-image," Rozman says. "Children who are sexually abused, for example: how they process it and what society has to say about it is often a greater source of stress than the original incident."
The answer, she says, is to help these victims reach an inner state that is at peace; it's often enough to simply enable these sufferers to start believing something else about themselves to begin rewiring their internal neural patterns.
HeartMath has also targeted children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), teaching them how to stabilize their emotions and calm their bodies down.
Depending on their ability to focus, to self-regulate their breathing and to initiate positive emotions using a HeartMath device or technique, boys and girls as young as six (and sometimes even younger) can be taught to progress through various interactive programmes for a minimum of six times a week and up to 10 minutes per session.
A randomized, controlled clinical trial looking at the impact of the HeartMath self-regulation skills programme on 38 children in grades 6-8 (middle school) found "significant improvements in various aspects of cognitive functioning", including memory and word recognition, among participants, as well as "significant improvements in behaviour . . . appropriate to implement in a school environment".13
One online programme called Smart Brain, Wise Heart (for ages nine and above) teaches kids basic concepts about their bodies, and how the heart-brain connection and nervous systems work. It explains how important their emotional "inner weather" is and shows them how to regulate their emotions through heart-focused breathing.
Madeline Falcone, counsellor and director of the Falcone Institute in San Diego, CA, uses emWave desktop technology, along with movement exercises, soothing music and tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT), to work with children. She starts with basic breathing exercises before moving on to emWave games and a programme called the Emotion Visualizer.
Dee Edmonson, RN, director of the Neurotherapy Center of Plano, Texas, has been using the HeartMath desktop technology for children with ADHD for more than eight years. She says that teaching parents is just as important as teaching their children self-regulation.
"If parents are not calm in their interactions with a child, that gets transferred to the child, who is already struggling with worry and agitation," she says. "By having the parents use the emWave technology either during the same session or separately, the child gets important reinforcement and modelling for learning new behaviour-management skills from a calmer parent."
Jeff Goerlitz, head of education at the HeartMath Institute, emphasizes the importance of incorporating other calming techniques on a daily basis and grounding the HeartMath programmes in real life. Whether it's play, being out in nature, doing self-regulated breathing, getting some exercise or a good night's sleep, scheduling downtime from stimulating computers, drawing and engaging in other kinds of arts and music—these kinds of real-world, restorative activities positively augment HRV training.
Goerlitz also reminds parents and teachers that they're looking for relative improvements, not dramatic shifts. "We had an eight-year-old boy in San Jose who interrupted all the time and couldn't sit in his seat," he says. "Instead of interrupting six times in a reading class, now he might do it once."
And in the above study of the HeartMath training programme in ADHD children in Liverpool,13 teachers reported the children were calmer, with fewer outbursts.
"The little changes are seeds of reinforcement over time," Goerlitz says. "Doing this work proves to the children that they do have a choice—that they can interrupt these patterns and redirect their energy."
The insidious nature of stress
Psychological stress is behind many, if not most, diseases and can cause:
- carotid atherosclerosis, narrowing of the two major arteries that carry blood from the heart to the brain1
- inflammation, thereby leading to cardiovascular disease2
- immune system suppression, increasing the risk of viral infections3
- excess histamine production, which can trigger severe asthma3
- elevated blood glucose levels by triggering fight-or-flight hormones, causing chronic high blood sugar and diabetes4
- deleterious brain effects, such as producing fewer neurons than normal, creating an imbalance that could lead to mental illness.5
Do-it-yourself heart coherence
Besides the range of useful HeartMath devices (Inner Balance, emWave2, emWave Pro), the Institute has championed a range of practices to help both children and adults manage their heart rate variability (HRV) and to de-stress.
Parents with children who are overactive can consciously carve out a few moments in the evening, when the child's body is trying to slow down, and work with their kids by saying, "Let's just take a couple minutes. Let's just breathe through our heart. Let's just slow down and reflect on what good things happened today. What did you enjoy? Did you find any heart-felt moments, any quiet moments? What did you appreciate?"
Jeff Goerlitz, the education specialist at HeartMath, recommends getting the child (or adult) to focus on those sorts of moments for a little while, before doing a simple heart-focused breathing technique called Quick Coherence.
The Quick Coherence Technique
Step 1) Focus your attention on the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area while breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. Suggestion: Inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds (or whatever rhythm is comfortable).
Step 2) Make a sincere attempt to experience a regenerative feeling, such as appreciation, or care for someone or something in your life. Suggestion: Try to re-experience the feeling you have for someone or something you love—a pet, a special place, an accomplishment—or focus on a feeling of calm or ease.
Step 3) Consciously experience the calmness and positive feelings for a few minutes.
Thinking better from the heart
The University of Oklahoma College of Nursing initiated a HeartMath programme in 2003 to see if HeartMath training might have any effect on students' anxiety, performance and dropout rates. Practising the HeartMath techniques increased test scores by an average of 17 points, while the dropout rate fell from 57 per cent to 37 per cent.1
Younger children have benefitted too. Seven primary and post-primary schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland, participated in a one-day interactive programme in which students learned how to use the emWave Pro. They were also given the HeartMath self-regulation exercise audio CD Journey to my Safe Place, and encouraged to use the games on the emWave Pro once or twice a week.
At the end of the study, students showed a 51 per cent reduction in emotional problems, a 43 per cent fall in conduct problems, a 40 per cent decrease in hyperactivity and a 50 per cent improved ability to relate to their peers.1
In California, two high schools participated in yet another study of the effectiveness of HeartMath techniques to enhance learning and improve testing in a total of 980 students.
By the end of the study, 75 per cent of these students had lower levels of test anxiety.1
HeartMath has even targeted school phobia with a programme called Early HeartSmarts® (EHS) to help prepare children for school. After testing the programme out in 19 preschool classrooms at 19 schools in a school district in Utah, those children who'd received the EHS training showed statistically significant advantages over their matching controls in a range of areas, including social/emotional and cognitive and language development, logical thinking, ability to listen, speaking, reading and writing.1
The emWave Pro retails for $299, and the emWave2 hand-held device for $199