The HeartMath institute has been doing some research on the influence of our heart for more than 30 years and they have made some pretty impressive discoveries. 

HeartMath provides a research-supported approach to reducing stress and improving cognitive and emotional capacities in children, adolescents and adults.


I first came across the institute while reading a book, The Stress Cure By Patrick Holford. He listed a few techniques he recommends to help us focus, control our thought process and try to relax. He mentioned Heartmath 5 min breathing Simple exercise.

I remembered that breathing can help you deal with stress, because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. So it made sense and triggered my interest.

What is HeartMath?

The HeartMath Institute has developed a set of tools and techniques to help regulate your emotional, mental and physical state. It is more than just a breathing exercise. It is about practicing genuine appreciation and compassion because it raises our heart’s vibrations.

“When our vibrations are up … we respond to stressful situations with soundness, resilience and clearer discernment. We are less vulnerable to frustration, impatience, anger, anxiety, and we feel more self-secure and less critical of others and of ourselves. We are drawn to notice nature, flowers and trees that we usually sleep-walk past, as our preoccupations rob us of this gift of conscious connection.”

Doc Childre, HeartMath founder

The Simple breathing exercise Patrick Holford referenced in his book, and which you can find on YouTube, focus your breath around the heart area. You then think about a positive event, to create a positive association to the breathing. It is only a few minute. Like other breathing exercise, it can stop the stress reaction while also creating a feeling of calm.

The Research

The HeartMat Research emphasize the importance of our heart, and the notion of “coherence” between our heart and our brain. It is impacted negatively by all emotional shocks (such as anxiety or stress). There are hundreds of pages of reports and books to read (way too much for me), but this is the result of 30 years of research, focused on the power of our heart.

We assume that the brain is the control power of our body and that it is the one sending commands to the rest of the body, including our heart, but actually what they discovered is that the heart has a small nervous system of its own, a “heart-brain” with some 40,000 neurons which can learn, feel, and remember. Some of the key message from their research:

  •  The heart sends more information to the brain that the other way around.
  • Positive emotions creates physiological benefits in your body
  • The heart has a system of neurons that has both short term and long term memory. 
  • Positive emotions can increase the brain’s ability to make good decisions. 

90 to 95% of the nerves connecting the heart and brain are afferent (ascending or going to) neural fibers carrying messages from the heart to the brain.

  • The amygdala literally marches to the beat of the heart’s drumming. What HeartMath discovered is that we can better self-regulate our emotions by learning how to self-regulate our heart rhythms.
  • The heart can help power and direct the brain. Heart coherence synchronizes brain waves and heart rhythms.

The deep limbic part of the brain helps to set our emotions tone, and the amygdala, which is part of it, actually marches to the beat of the heart. This means that by regulating our heart rhythms, we can help to regulate our emotions (simplification).

Sayings like “listen to you heart” or “put your heart into it” are known by all of us, yet I never really thought about what it meant from a physiological point of view.

The Technology

Your heart rate variability (HRV) is an excellent indicator of stress – this is the pattern of what happens between heartbeats and is now an accepted measure of your state of stress or negative emotion.

Coherence impact can be seen, visually. HeartMath simple and powerful self-regulation techniques are practiced using the Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Coherence biofeedback app and sensor.

So I bought the Inner Balance. It is a simple enough piece of plastic which sync through bluetooth with the app on your phone which is pretty cool. In the most fundamental state, it is a relatively expensive, more advanced breath pacer. It guides you through a state of appreciation, compassion. I like the fact that I get a score, and that I can increase my levels. It gamifies the experience, and make it fun!

The app is slick, the connection fast and reliable. Personally I do not use it as a reactive tool, more as a proactive one, which complements my meditation in the morning, helps me notice when something is off and try to regulate it, and cultivate a compassionate practice.

I track my score and try to beat my average coherence and total weekly score.

They have various versions to use, even one for professional.

Is it real science? Controversies warning!

Let me be straight forwards. There are some controversies out there around the validity of HeartMath studies. Not that many, but one Quora thread in particular is worth reading so you can make an informed opinion. I am not qualified to judge, and I do agree that some of the stuff they claim is far stretched.

Look, not everything is black&white, you need to decide what to take and what to leave, this is what self-care is all about. If we wait an other 30 years to get overall scientific approval, a lot of us won’t be here anymore.

I also do not see any harm being down. The tech is not so expensive (around 130€), worse case scenario it helps you practice simple breathing which we know is good for you … what ‘s the big deal?

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I like the tech, I use it every day and it works. I like the gamification of it. I like that they work with students, institutions, hospital and bring an alternative to Yoga, Tai-chi, Meditation or other similar relaxation techniques which are not accessible to everyone.

I like that they offer games and exercise for young kids, because I truly believe that our kids suffer from anxiety, and as a parent, it is complicated to unlock the conversation to help them. This is where their visual software works because you can see the results. Kids love games and competition, and through it, they learn about their emotional states and how to regulate it.

I came across emWare many years ago as I was followed by a resilience coach. Thanks to the software, he demonstrated me in realtime how some discussions triggered reactions, and how simple meditation could calm down my responses. This was an eye opening experience for me. Until then, I would never have considered it and understand the impact. emWare biofeedback convinced me, helped me understand emotions and the impact they have, while the coach helped me develop coping mechanism.

For me, Heartmath had a huge impact. I recommend it.

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