Brain and heart coherence
Learning the science and application of heart coherence and brain coherence has been the most important and profound lessons in my professional and personal life thus far. This information is very new in terms of our current evidence based medical paradigms, however, it is ancient wisdom in terms of what we intuitively and historically know about human function and behaviour.
We know that elevated emotions such as joy, compassion, love and appreciation feel much better and usually encourage more productive, caring and stress free lives. Whereas, emotions of anger, frustration, hate and lack, produce states of mind that feel much worse and produce more stress and unkind behaviours, to both ourselves and others. We also know that when the brain is stressed, when it is overwhelmed, when there is chaotic thinking, it is much harder to make rational and logical decisions. It is much harder to remember things and it is certainly much harder to communicate effectively, rationally and calmly. In other words, the brain becomes incoherent.
This is how I felt for some time after the birth of my first child. I lived in a state of fear and anxiety, I certainly couldn’t make a logical decision, I definitely couldn’t remember anything and any joy experienced was what Brene Brown terms “foreboding joy”. Joy experienced, immediately followed by that sense of doom. Like you look at your beautiful child sleeping, feel a sense of pure love and peace and the immediate next thought and feeling is what is going to go wrong? She’s going to die in her sleep. Has she stopped breathing…..heart races and you feel fearful and anxious.
Now some might say that is just normal for a new mother. Sure, that certainly is a common experience for a new mother and could be deemed “normal”. And, after 12 months of chronic sleep deprivation and a few major life stressors/crises, you could definitely justify that this was “normal” for me. However, this was not the way I wanted to live my life. In fact, most of the time I just wanted to get away from myself. Living with an anxious brain and a fearful heart was horrible.
Brain and heart coherence investigations
This is when I started to delve deeper into the science behind brain and heart coherence. While my investigations uncovered research from many thought leaders including Dr Bruce Lipton, Gregg Braden, Prof Henry Benson, I mainly studied the work of Dr Joe Dispenza and, the work from The Heart Math Institute. Both of these have a growing database of scientific studies on brain wave EEG’s, blood tests for stress hormones and genetic biomarkers, heart rate variability and the profound positive effect that getting into brain and heart coherence can have on human health and happiness.
This a brief summary of what I learnt and how I applied it to everyday life and cured my anxiety. Because if we wanted to be “medical” about this, we would label it Post Natal Anxiety. And, if we are going to be scientific about it, I can inform you that I cured my anxiety, post natal or otherwise. Not treated, not managed, not masked with medications or supplements, 100% cured and gone.
My brief interpretation of the data is as follows:
Thoughts are the language of the brain and feelings are the language of the body. What you think and what you feel creates your state of being. When you have a thought (or a memory), a biochemical reaction happens in your brain causing it to release chemical signals. These chemicals make your body feel exactly the same way you were thinking.
Once you notice you are feeling a particular way, you generate more thoughts equal to how you’re feeling, and then you release more chemicals from your brain to make you feel the way you have been thinking.
For example, if you think an anxious thought, you then start to feel fear. The moment you feel fear, that emotion influences you to think more fearful thoughts. Those thoughts trigger the release of even more chemicals in the brain and body that makes you continue to feel fear. So you get caught in the loop where your thinking creates feeling, and your feeling creates thinking.
In other words, you have conditioned your body into a state of fear. When you are “being” in fear, you are basically living in survival, with the sympathetic nervous system dialled up to allow you to be on alert, ready for action, ready to run. To survive. Your blood travels more to the periphery, your immune system shuts down (because it is not a time for growth and repair) and when this happens over prolonged periods, it sets your body up for the right environmental conditions for disease.
When you are living by the hormones of stress, your focus tends to become quite narrow. When we have cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies, we tend to be living on high alert and our brains become overly vigilant, trying to predict, control and force outcomes in an effort to increase our chances of survival.
When your brain is aroused and living in survival mode, you generally keep shifting your attention to things in your external world very quickly; text messages, FB, insta, job, husband, child, tv, news, shopping.
The act of narrowing your focus and shifting your attention compartmentalises your brain and it no longer works in a balanced fashion. You effectively train your brain to work in an incoherent and disorganised fashion……your brain becomes incoherent and inefficient. The effect is like a group of drummers all beating their drums out of order.
Further to that, when your brain becomes incoherent, you become incoherent.
Now, like most medical/health professionals I was taught that your brain is your master control centre and all organs are responding to messages from this centre. Interestingly, the new research is showing us is that there is more communication going from the heart to the brain than the other way. Our heart has much more input and control than we have given it credit for in the past. The majority of fibres in the vagus nerves are actually afferent in nature with more of these ascending neural pathways being related to the heart (and cardiovascular system), than to any other organ in the body.
The heart is a highly complex information-processing centre with its own functional brain, commonly called the heart brain, that communicates with and influences the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways. Due to the heart brain, the heart can THINK, REMEMBER and LEARN independent of the brain.
It has been shown that the best indicator of a person’s emotional state is heart rate variability, or heart rhythms. Stressful or depleting emotions such as frustration, anger, fear and overwhelm lead to increased disorder in the higher-level brain centres and autonomic nervous system, which is then reflected in the heart rhythms and adversely affects the functioning of virtually all bodily systems.
Numerous studies have shown that heart coherence is an optimal physiological state associated with increased cognitive function, self-regulatory capacity, emotional stability and resilience.
An extremely interesting fact is that the heart actually manufactures and secretes a number of hormones and neurotransmitters – including atrial peptide, which plays an important role in fluid and electrolyte balance and helps regulate the blood vessels, kidneys, adrenal glands and many regulatory centres in the brain. Increasing the levels of atrial peptide apparently inhibits the release of stress hormones, reduces sympathetic outflow,and appears to communicate with the immune system. The research also suggests atrial peptide can influence motivation and behaviour.
In a study conducted by Dr Joe Dispenza in 2016, he measured immunoglobulin A (IgA) in 117 test subjects. The participants were asked to move into an elevated emotional state such as love, joy, inspiration or gratitude for nine to ten minutes, three times per day per day for 4 consecutive days. After 4 days, average IgA levels increased by 49.5%! Fascinating! (p.g. 42,43 of book reference number 2 below).
Implementing into everyday life
In order to change the way I thought and change the way I felt, I had to change my lifestyle. But this wasn’t a typical lifestyle medicine prescription of nutrition, exercise and stress reduction strategies. For the most part, this was a daily commitment to do the work to rewire my brain and heart. To recondition my body to a new mind. To become astutely aware of the thoughts that created the feelings and to change them. To be conscious, moment by moment, of the actions and behaviours that followed the thoughts and feelings….and to change them too. To unwire old neural networks and rewire new networks.
It wasn’t a straight forward process, and certainly not an easy one, but in the end I found the results speak for themselves. I’m continually encouraged and inspired by the application of lifestyle medicine, even more so when I can directly apply to my own patterns of behaviour, health and happiness, and then share this experience with others.
Lifestyle Medicine prescription
For those interested, here are the key steps that I followed:
- Reprogramming thoughts – upon waking, take note of the thoughts I didn’t want to have, and replace them with thought I do want to have. Keep a check on these through out the day. Every time a thought that I didn’t want to have came into my conscious awareness, I would change it.
- Meditation daily– usually 45 to 1 hour, however, I started with 15 to 20 minutes first. Then trained myself to do it for longer periods. The goal of this meditation practice was to bring my brain down into theta brain wave state. In theta brain wave patterns, you can tap into the sub conscious mind and start to reprogram unhelpful ways of thinking. In this state, you can also switch on healing mechanisms through changing epigenetic signalling. The goal was to also bring an elevated state of emotion into my heart and therefore increase heart coherence.
- Heart coherence technique– at any time throughout the day or night when I started to to feel and anxious thoughts or any fear, overwhelm, fatigue etc, I would breathe into the area of my heart and bring a feeling of gratitude, joy or appreciation into it. I learnt that there is a very big difference between thinking gratitude and feeling gratitude.
- Develop a joy for life – to firstly actually be in the present moment, and then, enjoy it. Sounds extremely cliche, however, it did and does actually make a different. To be totally present and engaged in what you are doing and who you are with rather than thinking about other things, being distracted and feeling anxious.
- Brown, B. (2013) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Australia: Penguin Group
- Dispenza, Dr J (2017) Becoming Supernatural: How Common People are Doing the Uncommon,Australia: McPherson’s Publishing Group
- McCraty, R (2015) The Science of the Heart, Volume 2: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance, USA: The HeartMath Institute. Retrieved from heartmath.org
This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.