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“The irony is this: our bodies react to stress in exactly the same way whether or not we have a good reason for being stressed. The body doesn't care if we're right or wrong. Even in those times when we feel perfectly justified in getting angry – when we tell ourselves it's the healthy response – we pay for it just the same.
~ Doc Childre (founder of HeartMath®)
The Mindbody Connection
I remember a time this past summer, when I got furious about something small. The trigger doesn't matter; it was an insignificant event, although, of course, it felt important at the time. The memory is strong because of what happened that evening: I had one of the worst pain flares since the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. I always knew that our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations were connected; I just never knew how directly until I developed an autoimmune condition, where subtlety disappears and the body talks very loudly.
HeartMath is a way to see this connection without the pain. It's a form of biofeedback, which simply means your body is monitored and you receive feedback about its response to your current experience.
In HeartMath's case, A little clip on your ear connects you to their biofeedback program, which monitors your heart rate and your heart rate variability (the rhythm of the space between beats).
As an introduction to the program, you are asked to think of a situation that's frustrating for you for 3 minutes. Then you are asked to think of something that makes you feel gratitude or appreciation. Below is an example of the typical difference between your heart rate with these two feelings:
Dr. Terry Wahls (author of The Wahls Protocol) practices both HeartMath and meditation daily as part of her healing protocol. While I also meditate daily, I had never experienced biofeedback before. I was curious, so I set up an appointment with a local practitioner. The results were fascinating.
The HeartMath software shows three graphs (see image below). The graph on top is the heart rhythm. The two on the bottom are based on this rhythm, simply showing different visuals for interpretation. The line graph goes up when your heart rhythm begins to become smooth and balanced (what they call coherence). This smooth rhythm is linked to reduced stress, cardiovascular health, a balancing of the hormones and immune system, and clarity of thought and action. The bar graph shows what percentage of the time you're in coherence, with red being low, blue being medium and green being high.
In my HeartMath session featured in the image above, I was told to meditate any way I'd like. I chose to breathe deeply and do positive visualization (images that are soothing and uplifting, to replace the random thoughts in my mind). Being new to biofeedback and the experience of being monitored by both a person and a machine, I had some anxiety, and that showed up in my rhythm. The heart wave shows a moderately coherent rhythm – not chaotic, but not totally smooth either. The lower line graph goes upward (showing a growing coherence), with little dips that show each time my mind generated another image. Toward the end of this meditation, there's a slightly bigger dip, and that's where my mind wandered before I caught it and returned to focusing on my breath. It amazed me how the heart rhythm mirrored what was going on in my mind so precisely.
In my next session, featured in the image above, my HeartMath faciliator suggested keeping the meditation simpler: breathing love in and out through my heart. This combination of focusing on the heart while generating a positive emotion is a signature of all HeartMath exercises. You can see the result in the graphs. My heart rhythm is smoother than it was during the other meditation. The line graph goes up without dipping, eventually reaching a place marked as “the zone” by the program. The bars show that I am in moderate to high coherence the whole time. I was less anxious, as I was getting more practice with the program, so that is reflected, but more than that, it showed how this simple heart-based technique allowed me to reach coherence quickly and maintain it smoothly. It's a pretty strong testimonial.
The Difference Between Biofeedback and Meditation
Sometimes people refer to biofeedback as a form of meditation. While the goals are often similar ( improved health through the mindbody connection), the methods are quite different. Meditation requires nothing but you to participate. Biofeedback requires a device to monitor and record your body's response, and provides you with feedback accordingly. There are many different types: some measure brain waves, others measure body temperature, HeartMath measures the heart rhythm in an effort to tap into the heart's intelligence. We often think of our brains being in charge of our bodies, sending signals that tell the rest of our body what to do, but communication goes both ways. Here's a quote from HeartMath's website:
“Emotions move faster than thought and are registered by the heart before the brain. The heart pulses out a rhythmic pattern that reflects our emotional state, transmitting this information to the brain, rest of the body, and even into the environment – via an electromagnetic field.”
The goal of HeartMath is to tap this connection, to learn how feelings impact our bodies. We can then apply this knowledge in everyday life, stopping a negative emotion (and the cascading physical effects), before they start.
Research ~ Benefits
The term “biofeedback” was coined in the late 1960's and since then, research has shown success with conditions as wide-ranging as anxiety, ADHD, chronic pain, headaches, high blood pressure and even epilepsy. The HearthMath Institute conducts studies into its heart-centered form of biofeedback and has seen success with conditions like those above as well as brain injuries, PTSD, diabetes and HIV.
How Can You Try It?
If you're interested in trying HeartMath yourself, you can look for a practitioner in your community, or buy the software for use at home. Although I can't hook you up to the software through this article, I can give you an exercise to try and see how it feels for you. This one is called Quick Coherence®.
- Heart Focus: Focus your attention on the area around your heart, the area in the center of your chest. If you prefer, the first couple of times you try it, place your hand over the center of your chest to help keep your attention in the heart area.
- Heart Breathing: Breathe deeply but normally and feel as if your breath is coming in and going out through your heart area. Continue breathing with ease until you find a natural inner rhythm that feels good to you.
- Heart Feeling: As you maintain your heart focus and heart breathing, activate a positive feeling. Recall a positive feeling, a time when you felt good inside, and try to re-experience the feeling. One of the easiest ways to generate a positive, heart-based feeling is to remember a special place you’ve been to or the love you feel for a close friend or family member or treasured pet. This is the most important step. (Eileen's note: based on my experience with this technique, I recommend thinking of a specific moment with that person, or specific quality of that person, rather than the person as a whole. This is an easier image to hold, without eliciting the chatter of the mind.)
- Real Life: Apply this one-minute technique first thing in the morning, before or during phone calls or meetings, in the middle of a difficult conversation, when you feel overwhelmed or pressed for time, or anytime you simply want to practice increasing your coherence.
I'm a recovering perfectionist, and biofeedback can wake this beast. It felt strange to be biologically monitored while trying to relax. I felt self-conscious and concerned with doing it “right.” Seeing the graphs, I found myself wanting to get a higher score next time. Can you see yourself in this scenario? No worries. I imagine the more you practice, the more comfortable the process becomes, and perfectionism can go back to sleep.
Have you experienced HeartMath or another form of biofeedback? Please share in the comments below.
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