When I tell you that emotional well-being begins in the heart, you probably think that I’m referring to the metaphorical repository of love. But in fact, I’m talking about the actual organ.
Research in a fascinating branch of biofeedback shows that particular heart-rhythm patterns accompany different emotional states and send distinct signals to the brain. These, in turn, influence our emotions, nervous system activity and cognitive abilities, including memory and problem-solving. It now appears that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system (nicknamed the "heart brain") that independently senses and processes information. In fact, the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart!
I was intrigued to discover that a biofeedback technique called HeartMath, in which we learn to control our heart rhythms, can produce powerfully positive effects on the way we think and feel -- so I invited psychologist and HeartMath practitioner Corey S. Bercun, PhD, founder and director of the Trauma and Stress Recovery Center in San Francisco, to share his knowledge with us.
Who can be helped: Studies published in The American Journal of Cardiology and Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science and elsewhere, plus case history data, show that this biofeedback technique can significantly improve health, psychological well-being and/or quality of life in people with...
- Psychological conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Physical ailments, such as hypertension, chronic fatigue, chronic pain and insomnia.
How it works: Biofeedback consists of monitoring physiological activity -- typically brain waves, breathing patterns and/or the skin’s electrical conductivity -- with instruments that produce visual or auditory representations of the activity. With this feedback, patients learn which thoughts and breathing patterns enhance physiological rhythms... then they learn to reproduce these independent of the biofeedback device.
HeartMath works basically the same way, Dr. Bercun explained, except that a device provides feedback on your heart rate variability (the naturally occurring variation in the time intervals between heartbeats). For instance...
- When you are anxious, angry, frustrated or in pain, your heart rhythm becomes erratic. Disorderly neural signals travel from the heart to the brain, triggering a cascade of biochemical changes that can inhibit clear thinking, deplete energy and produce extra wear and tear on the body. The HeartMath device depicts these erratic heart rhythms with angular, irregular marks on the graph that appears on the screen.
- When you feel positive emotions (appreciation, joy, love), your heart rhythm is ordered, stable and smooth. The accompanying signals from heart to brain facilitate cognitive function and allow the body’s systems to operate efficiently. The HeartMath device represents these heart patterns with smooth, wavelike lines on the graph.
The goal: With training, you learn to consciously promote these favorable heart rhythms and, in turn, gain more control over your physical, mental and emotional state, Dr. Bercun told me.
What to expect: Either of two biofeedback products can be used for HeartMath training -- a software program installed on a computer or a stand-alone handheld device. A sensor clip attached to an earlobe or finger conveys information about heart rhythms to the device, which produces audio and/or visual feedback. The practitioner provides instruction on how to focus on positive experiences and emotions to produce beneficial shifts in heart rhythm. Unlike typical relaxation techniques, which create a low-energy state, the aim with HeartMath is to achieve a state that is calm and balanced, yet energized and responsive.
Sessions typically last 30 to 45 minutes. The number of sessions needed depends on how quickly the techniques are mastered. "Often there can be dramatic results in the first session. In my own practice, I’ve seen blood pressure drop by as much as 25 points for the top number and 12 points for the bottom number," Dr. Bercun said. Some insurance plans cover this therapy. To find a practitioner: Check www.HeartMathProviders.com.
Home use: For maximum long-term benefits, especially when dealing with a chronic medical or psychological condition, Dr. Bercun recommended that professional training be followed up with home practice. Devices for home use: The emWave Desktop Stress Relief System computer software program with hardware costs about $300, has multiple graphic and audio options for representing heart rhythm, and can save session data and track your progress. The emWave Personal Stress Reliever, a $200 device about the size of an iPod, offers fewer features but is portable. These products can be used on your own without professional guidance, particularly if your goal is simply to reduce stress and enhance mental stamina. Product information: www.HeartMathStore.com.
Source: Corey S. Bercun, PhD, is a psychologist, HeartMath practitioner and founder and director of the Trauma and Stress Recovery Center in San Francisco.