Stress reduction through heart coherence


“When the emotional brain is out of order, the heart suffers and wears out … The proper functioning of the heart turns out influence the brain as well.”

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD goes on to say that “Some cardiologists and neurologists go so far as to refer to a “heart-brain system” that cannot be dissociated.” The brain and the heart are connected via the autonomic peripheral nervous system, which is not under conscious control and regulates organ function.

As I’ve discussed in many other tips, the sympathetic branch (fight or flight), raises heart rate, blood pressure etc. whereas the parasympathetic branch slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure etc. The goal for optimal health is to have the two branches balance each other, rather than have one branch (usually the sympathetic one) racing out of control.

It is now known that the heart  produces some of its own hormones, and actually has its own perceptions, which can influence the function of the whole body including the brain. It sends messages back to the brain via direct nerve connections also, creating an interconnected loop. So, learning how to control the heart can make a huge difference in our ability to come to peace with the emotional brain.

One of the ways to see the connection between the brain and the heart is by looking at the variability in heart rate in response to the constant demands of the sympathetic (accelerator) and parasympathetic system (brake).

It is not normal to have an extremely steady heart rate, where the space between each beat is identical for long periods of time – there should always be minute variations and adjustments, which is a reflection of the give and take in the nervous system.

When the emotional brain is not happy – when we are depressed, anxious, worried, overly stressed or angry, our heart rate variability lessens, and the beat becomes more chaotic, showing up on a biofeedback graph as jagged, disorderly beats.

When feeling joy, happiness, love, gratefulness, compassion or other positive feelings, our heart responds by "smoothing out" the rhythm, making the wave on a biofeedback graph appear harmonious and coherent.

On a biofeedback graph, the space between the peaks won't be even, reflecting good heart-rate variability, but the graph itself will be less "jagged" if that makes any kind of sense at all. Look at the graphs here to see the difference between a non-coherent and a coherent heart rhythm.

When the heart is beating in coherence, the brain works more quickly and more accurately, the autonomic nervous system stabilizes, our respiratory rhythms and our blood pressure variations synchronize, and our emotional state can dramatically change.

When we are suffering emotional distress, our heart will beat in a chaotic fashion. This can happen for a few minutes or for much longer periods of time over the course of a day, depending on how we are coping. No wonder so many of us are tired all the time, and some of us suffer from heart palpitations and anxiety attacks.

In the same day, our hearts may be beating in coherence for periods of time too. The more time spent in coherence, the healthier and happier we are. And thankfully, we can train heart coherence, and it is a very effective way to deal with negative emotions via the body, as I was explaining last week.

And when we get good at achieving heart coherence, we can use it when we are under emotional stress to keep our physiology working well, so we no longer live in a state of chronic stress, which has such negative consequences for the body.

Although there are many software biofeedback programs on the market now that measure heart coherence and can be very helpful to learn how to bring oneself into coherence at will, they are not necessary.

One can achieve coherence by taking a few minutes to set aside one's troubles, sit or lie down, and focus on the action of taking a few deep breaths. Be an observer, and watch the air pass your nostrils, fill your lungs, and feel the ribcage expand.

Then without forcing, watch the air come out, being mindful of the feeling as it passes through your throat and out your nose. Breath easily, long, deep and slow for a few breaths.

Then focus in on your heart, and feel as if you are breathing through your heart or the centre of the chest, washing the heart in fresh oxygen with each inhale, and removing the waste with each exhale.

Pay attention to any warming feelings or feelings of your chest emotionally expanding. Think of someone you love, or perhaps your favourite place in the world. Think of something you are extremely grateful for, or a time where you did something that made you feel wonderful. When you feel that inner glow, you have achieved heart coherence.

With practice, one can achieve coherence quickly, even in stressful situations. Coherence provides a good opportunity to access both the cognitive and the emotional brain, as the system is in balance. It can also provide a direct line of communication into the emotional brain.

Once in coherence, one can ask the heart a difficult question, and look for the reaction – greater warmth and comfort, or a feeling of withdrawal – and know how the emotional body is viewing the situation.

It is said that we are happiest when we follow our heart, so learning to hear what our heart is telling us can be very valuable indeed.

The ideas in this tip come from a book I really enjoyed – The Instinct to Heal – Curing Depression, Anxiety, and Stress without Drugs and without Talk Therapy, by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., PhD. Do read the book for more details.

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Mind and body; psyche and soma
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An attitude of gratitude
One breath meditation

Servan-Schreiber, David MD, PhD. The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy Rodale Inc., US, 2004.

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Tiller WA et al. Cardiac Coherence: A New, Non-invasive Measure of Autonomic Nervous System Order Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 1996; 2(1): 52-65.

Ginsberg JP et al. Improving Cognition in Recently Returned Combat Veterans with Post traumatic Stress Disorder by Heart Rate Variability Coherence Biofeedback Shirley L. Buchanan Neuroscience Laboratory, Dorn VA Medical Center, Columbia, SC., 2008.

McCraty R et al. Impact of a workplace stress reduction program on blood pressure and emotional health in hypertensive employees. J Altern Complement Med. 2003 Jun;9(3):355-69.

Luskin F. et al. A Controlled Pilot Study of Stress Management Training of Elderly Patients With Congestive Heart Failure Preventive Cardiology 2002;5(4):168-172, 176.

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Doc Childre et al. Psychophysiological Correlates of Spiritual Experience Biofeedback 2001;29(4):13-17.

McCraty R et al. Analysis of twenty-four hour heart rate
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McCraty R et al. The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol Integr Physiol Behav Sci. 1998 Apr-Jun;33(2):151-70.

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Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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1 Comment

  1. Lia Grantham said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 8:45 pm

    People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes. Sometimes symptoms may last longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.

    Till next time

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