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Who's In Charge Here? (Using Heart Rate Variability to Build Resilience to Stress)

How does it feel when the systems in our body are not working in coherence? Our gut can feel tied up in knots. Our heart is hammering in our chest. Our brain has a hard time concentrating and making decisions. Symphony orchestras have a conductor to keep the musicians in sync but who is the maestro keeping the systems in our body (circulatory, digestive, respiratory, nervous) working in harmony?

Both the heart and the brain produce an electromagnetic field. The amplitude of the heart’s field is 60 times greater than the brain and is broadcast to every cell in the body. The magnetic component of the heart is 5,000 times stronger than the brain. Of all the neurological pathways between the brain and the heart, 10% carry signals from the brain to the heart and 90% carry signals from the heart to the brain. So the heart is doing most of the talking.

Have you heard of Heart Rate Variability or HRV? You have probably seen the output from an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) that depicts the heart’s electrical signals. The heart beat rhythm is represented by a line of peaks and valleys showing contractions or beats. An average of the length of time between beats is your heart rate variability. You may be surprised to learn that the space of time between our heart beats is irregular. It VARIES. And the more the length of time between heartbeats varies, the more coherent your systems are and the more resilient you are to stress. That seemed counterintuitive to me the first time that I heard it. When we talk about the heart beating we would think that regularity would be important. So in relation to heart rate variability, it may help to think of variability as flexibility. The symphony of our bodies is composed in different time signatures and we need a conductor who can keep up with the tempo changes. A flexible heart is like a tree that bends in the wind so it doesn’t break.

You can use an HRV biofeedback device to train your heart to be more flexible. There are several on the market. (I am not into product reviews so I recommend that you research your options before making a purchase. Look for a device that provides real-time HRV feedback with a breathing pacer.) Studies have shown that Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback training lowers anxiety, anger, and blood pressure. It improves mood, sleep, problem-solving capability, athletic and artistic performance. In this video, I demonstrate a biofeedback device that you can use build coherence between the systems in your body. Find out how our inner conductor can make us more resilient to stress.


HeartMath approach to self-regulation and psychosocial well-being

Following the Rhythm of the Heart: HeartMath Institute’s Path to HRV Biofeedback

Implementing Mobile HRV Biofeedback as Adjunctive Therapy During Inpatient Psychiatric Rehabilitation Facilitates Recovery of Depressive Symptoms and Enhances Autonomic Functioning Short-Term: A 1-Year Pre–Post-intervention Follow-Up Pilot Study

A meta-analysis on heart rate variability biofeedback and depressive symptoms



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