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Learning to re-set our physiology when we become aware of depleting emotions is a powerful life-enhancing skill
Since March of this year, general practitioners have surfed the Covid-19 wave, hoping for a soft, secure landing before being overcome by the rough seas of winter. Six months later, some of us are still surfing; some are drowning; others have given up and gone home.
Surfers have a saying: ‘Waves are not measured in feet and inches; they are measured in increments of fear.’ In the past month, fear and anxiety have been palpable on the GP webinars and social media platforms. It feels as if the collective amygdala is going into overdrive. We manage challenges when they occur, but we cannot control what has not yet happened, and this makes us apprehensive and fearful.
Research on emotions has come a long way since the days of cognitive behavioural therapy and the belief that thoughts generate emotions, so that by changing our thoughts, we can change how we feel.
More recent evidence from the fields of psychophysiology, neurocardiology and neuroscience has shown that while that may be true, there is a complicated relationship between feelings and physiology that we are only just beginning to understand. One interesting finding is that by intentionally altering our physiology, we can change how we feel. Likewise, deliberately altering how we feel changes our physiology.
The Institute of HeartMath (IHM), a non-profit research and education organisation founded in 2010, has developed a system of emotion regulation and restructuring techniques that they call the HeartMath System. These are evidence-based, practical, easy-to-learn tools that can be incorporated into the daily routine to combat stress, reduce negative emotions and improve personal performance. The rationale for the techniques is that they create a state of psychophysiological coherence which not only makes us feel good, but is good for our physical health.
Breathing techniques have been used since 2,500BC to promote feelings of peacefulness and relaxation. Breathing patterns modulate heart rhythms and a breathing pattern of one breath every 10 seconds causes the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to oscillate at the same frequency. This is called resonant breathing. Resonant breathing increases coherence between the central nervous system, cardiovascular and digestive systems.
The beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system is that it increases heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a function of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS regulates 90 per cent of the internal processes of the body and balance between these two branches is essential for physical and psychological health. A low level of HRV is predictive of heart disease and premature mortality. HRV is also reflective of the emotional state, as emotions exert an effect on all the body’s systems, including the central nervous system. Renewing emotions such as care, appreciation or joy, increase alignment of the two branches of the ANS, leading to an increase in the amount, and more coherent patterns of, HRV.
Depleting emotions such as anger or fear decrease the amount and produce incoherent patterns. Coherent patterns of HRV enhance the ability of the thalamus to direct cortical activity, while disorganised patterns lead to cortical inhibition. The subjective experience of increased coherence between systems and increased HRV is greater joy, ease, improved decision-making, problem-solving and enhanced social connection.
Learning to re-set our physiology when we become aware of depleting emotions is a powerful life-enhancing skill. I first read about this research when I studied for an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology in 2017 and have practised and taught the HeartMath techniques on-and-off ever since.
The most basic technique is called heart-focused breathing.
The instructions are as follows:
Focus your attention on the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. Inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds (or whatever rhythm is comfortable). Continue this practice for up to five minutes and observe the effect on how you feel. Repeat as often as you like throughout the day.
Heart-focused breathing is the first step in this system. The additional practices build on this step by including the deliberate generation of positive emotion, which further increases HRV and coherence and helps sustain this beneficial physiological state. In the past six months, many people have developed an anxious and fearful default emotional and psychological state with an overactive sympathetic nervous system. While this was necessary for the early stages, prolonged anxiety will eventually lead to burnout and poor physical health.
We must breathe anyway, so why not use our breath to help ourselves feel better, work better and experience more joy?
Who knows, we may even begin to enjoy surfing those waves.
Dr Lucia Gannon is a certified HeartMath trainer. For more information about HeartMath research and practices, visit www.heartmath.org.