What is HeartMath®?

HeartMath will help you to transform your stress into resilience, to achieve higher levels of performance and to live your life with more heart, health and happiness.

HeartMath is a system of simple and powerful self-regulation techniques which are easy to learn and designed to be used “in the moment”, whatever the situation, meaning that you can bring your best self to your professional, social and personal lives.

And what makes HeartMath unique is that you can practise the techniques using our Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Coherence biofeedback app and sensor. Coherence Biofeedback gives you real-time insight into your emotional, mental and physical state. This increases your self-awareness and helps you to develop the ability to self-regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

Want to know the science stuff?

Coherence – the state of optimal function
HeartMath is backed by more than 25 years of scientific research. Our research shows that regulating breathing and generating positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state called psychophysiological coherence, or coherence for short.

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Coherence is characterised by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental) and physiological (bodily) processes. It is a state of optimal function. When we activate this state, we experience greater emotional stability, increased mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.

Coherence also promotes homeostasis, the body’s natural way of keeping everything in balance and of maintaining resilience to challenge, stress and damage. As such you can think of coherence as the engine for resilience and of the coherence techniques as ways to boost your inner battery and keep your resilience engine running effectively. Coherence can be learnt, practiced and developed and the physical and mental benefits can be profound.

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Measuring and practising coherence – Heart Rate Variability

Physiologically, the Coherence state is marked by the development of a smooth, sine-wave like pattern in the heart-rate variability (HRV) trace. This characteristic pattern is the primary indicator of the psychophysiological Coherence state, and it is what our emWave® and Inner Balance biofeedback technologies measure and quantify.

Several important physiological changes occur during Coherence. The two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) synchronise with one another, and there is an overall shift in autonomic balance towards increased parasympathetic activity. There is also increased physiological entrainment – various different bodily systems synchronise to the rhythm generated by the heart (see image below). Finally, there is increased synchronisation between the activity of the heart and brain.

Measuring and practising coherence
Measuring and practising coherence – Heart Rate Variability
The Difference between Coherence and Relaxation
The Difference between Coherence and Relaxation

The Difference between Coherence and Relaxation

Coherence is not relaxation, it is a separate state within the Autonomic Nervous System and it is a state which is more appropriate for many of our daily activities. It is a “doing’ state which enables you to be flexible and adaptable to demands as opposed to being too relaxed. An important point is that the state of coherence is both psychologically and physiologically distinct from the state achieved through most relaxation techniques. At the physiological level, relaxation is characterised by an overall reduction in autonomic outflow (resulting in lower HRV) and a shift in ANS balance towards increased parasympathetic activity.

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Coherence is also associated with a relative increase in parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing a key element of the relaxation response, but is physiologically distinct from relaxation in that the system oscillates at its natural resonant frequency and there is increased harmony and synchronisation in nervous system and heart-brain dynamics. This important difference between the two states is reflected most clearly in their respective HRV power (see image below). Furthermore, unlike relaxation, the Coherence state does not necessarily involve a lowering of heart rate, or a change in the amount of HRV, but rather is primarily marked by a change in the heart rhythm pattern.

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The Roles of Breathing and Emotions

While HeartMath techniques incorporate an important breathing element, paced breathing is not the primary focus and should therefore not be thought of simply as breathing exercises. The main difference between the HeartMath tools and most commonly practiced breathing techniques is that the HeartMath tools focus on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive state. The emotional shift is a key element of the techniques’ effectiveness. Positive and pleasant emotions appear to excite the system at its natural resonant frequency and thus enable coherence to emerge and to be maintained naturally, without conscious mental focus on one’s breathing rhythm. Additionally, the emotional shift triggers hormonal changes, increasing the release of important revitalising and stress buffering hormones like DHEA and Oxytocin and, when practiced to regulate stress, reducing the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

I am doing much more than the 3x 5 minutes a day (I’m monitoring my coherence right now !) and I have done a session at work (with it on silent) while I typed away on my computer – very interesting to see how different pieces of work affect your level of coherence.

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The Heart-Brain Connection

Most of us have been taught that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not commonly known that the heart actually sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. This information travels via the vagus nerve and also as a pulse wave, electromagnetically and hormonally. Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart. These effects of heart activity on brain function have been researched extensively and independently over the past 40 years and there is currently a great deal of interest in Heart Rate Variability as an influence on brain activity.

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HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes – actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.

In contrast, the more ordered and stable the pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect – it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability.

This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm Coherence, by regulating breathing and sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel and perform.

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What is HRV and Why is it Important?

Heart-Rate Variability or HRV is the beat to beat changes in your heart rate, and is due to the synergistic action of the two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – the part of the nervous system that regulates most of the body’s internal functions. The sympathetic nerves act to accelerate heart rate, while the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves slow it down. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are continually interacting to maintain cardiovascular activity in its optimal range and to permit appropriate reactions to changing internal and external conditions.

Scientists and physicians consider HRV to be an important indicator of health and fitness. As a marker of physiological resilience and behavioral flexibility, it reflects our ability to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands. A simple analogy helps to illustrate this point: just as the shifting stance of a tennis player about to receive a serve may facilitate swift adaptation, in healthy individuals the heart remains similarly responsive and resilient, primed and ready to react when needed.

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HRV is also a marker of biological aging. Our heart rate variability is greatest when we are young, and as we age the range of variation in our resting heart rate becomes smaller. By reducing stress-induced wear and tear on the nervous system and facilitating the body’s natural regenerative processes homeostasis), regular practice of HeartMath coherence- building techniques can help restore low HRV to healthy values.

The analysis of HRV therefore serves as a dynamic window into the function and balance of the Autonomic Nervous System and HRV biofeedback acts as a training aid to self-regulate and re-balance the Autonomic Nervous System, especially during stress.

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