Over the past 20 years, new information has been discovered about the heart that shows it’s far more complex than we’d ever imagined. Instead of simply pumping blood, the heart directs and aligns many systems in the body so that they can function in harmony with one another.
The mind on its own is not enough; to reach a level of resilience and balance, your body and physiology need attention. Learning to work in ’flow’ can help you in your professional and personal life, often enabling one to get to the heart of the matter. We cannot just think our way to a stress-free state—we have to feel it.
Stress is something that we will all feel from time to time but how many of us are consciously aware of the impact?
Numerous pressures can cause stress and contribute to a stress response, whether it be at work, at home, or at times when our lives go through a period of change, or when a project is more complex than anticipated. Many successful professionals feel stress or even anxiety at some point during their careers, but stress can also affect those as young as primary school age children and university graduates.
Too much pressure and stress can overwhelm us and affect our health negatively. Symptoms such as fatigue, becoming more prone to mistakes or lingering coughs and colds are all early warning signs you may be heading towards a more serious health challenge as a result of unchecked stress.
A study by Towers Watson found that one in three UK workers were in danger of burnout in 2012 yet how much have employers really got to grips with this risk? And how many of us as individuals and have taken measures to improve our personal defenses or even recognise society’s trend towards escalating stress levels that are negatively impacting our health and wellbeing?
With the rising scale of depression and anxiety reported by the CIPD in September 2015 UK employers are missing an opportunity to take critical action to educate employees. By developing a health and wellbeing proposition supported by benefit packages that can act as enablers to wellbeing, organisations can improve their employee’s performance, productivity, engagement and health to create a sustainable and innovative business.
Further, our education system has not addressed this as part of the core curriculum. In October 2015 heads of leading schools shared figures with the Sunday Times from a survey of 65 schools that showed more than 85% were concerned about the surge in mental stress amongst pupils!
It should be no surprise then, that the World Health Organisation predicts depression will be the biggest cause of disability globally by 2020. Even if you are not a parent or manager, with 1 in 4 people suffering from stress in any one year (Mental health charity MIND) either you or someone close to you is likely to be affected.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for people suffering from stress and anxiety because it challenges negative beliefs and results in a more positive outlook. This has been the standard NHS response to stress for several years now. And yet escalating figures from society indicate that in the last 5 years, stress has been the main cause of absence in the UK overtaking muscular skeletal problems? And now worrying trends are being formed around depression and anxiety!
Humans are a resilient species, however the pace of change has accelerated in the past 100 years and our biology has not yet caught up. The danger here is that our busy lives are causing stress responses all the time and yet we do not even realise it is happening!
All too often the solutions available in modern medicine are merely coping strategies that treat the symptom and not the cause. They do not help to build the resilience we need to overcome difficulties as they happen, to react to challenges with compassion, composure and provide a deeper level of understanding of ourselves and others.
Whether you view Western or Eastern medicine as a superior voice, the heart is considered central in both. Scientific progress and research in western medicine has shown that interactions between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems do exist and explains why well known sayings such as “worried to death” have transpired over the years.
A whole body approach is what we need! It is time we reconnected with our whole selves to better understand our stresses and how we overcome them! We need to get to the heart of whom we truly are in order to know and build trust in ourselves so that we can face life’s inevitable challenges effectively. In this paper I begin to explore how we can do this with a heart-centered approach!
What happens during a stress response?
Any high-pressure scenario has an impact on what happens inside our bodies and can therefore impact on our health. The body has a physical response to stress, challenge or change; essentially tension and contraction. Irrespective of whether you are a high achiever who believes you thrive on stress, repeating this internal, stress response can cause wear and tear and, over sustained periods of time, lead to situations where we behave in a way that is not helpful or can cause long-term health issues.
This stress response is automatic and unconscious, a bit like waking up in the morning. It has an impact on breathing, the nervous system, heart rate and much more! It is a basic part of our biology that has not evolved as quickly as the pace of life – it goes back to pre-historic times when we faced life or death situations that were a threat to our wellbeing every day – yet unlike the iPhone 6 we have not had an upgrade to this basic biology as yet!
When a stressful event happens, we experience an emotional response as well as the cascade of physiological changes briefly described above. It is often how we react to stress unconsciously that can cause problems. Negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger and worry set off a chain of biochemical changes in our body. The body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn creates a chaotic heart rhythm, confuses our decision-making processes and can even cause cognitive shutdown, resulting in outcomes that will not necessarily help us. Have you ever uttered the words, “I wish I had not said that!”?
On the other hand, if you spend more time experiencing positive emotions, the body releases a hormone called DHEA, leading to an energising effect during which the heart rhythm is more coherent, you achieve improved mental clarity, and therefore better decision-making and more productivity. However, negative emotions do have value, for example, our capacity to feel shame warns us our actions could socially exclude us. Anger can be a toxic emotion, yet it can also give us the courage to stand up for ourselves. The trick is to empower ourselves to work with the good, bad and great emotions that we all experience, and develop personal effectiveness strategies so we don’t dwell on the negative for too long!
We are all unique and that is to be respected. Our feelings, attitudes and behaviours are all part of us. Even the difficult feelings should not be disregarded but embraced, as these feelings define who we truly are. Developing a practice that allows you to safely go towards, and sit with a negative emotion can help to develop the ability to acknowledge one’s emotional landscape. Learning how to let go of energy draining emotions, allowing us to move on more quickly can be a very helpful practice and holds the potential to free us from experiencing negative emotions that disempower us too often. This will help raise our resistance to stress.
Mindfulness Practices - Making Your Emotions Work
Practiced extensively by elite athletes, top surgeons, leading business figures and the military, Mindfulness teaches us to manipulate our own mind instead of letting it manipulate us.
In QiGong, a mindfulness practice that originates from China, the whole body is considered. Practiced for over 5,000 years, QiGong includes both movement and seated based routines that enable you to transform challenging times to inner strength. Indeed the closest translation for stress from the Chinese language consists of two characters, one signifies danger and the other signifies opportunity. Fast forward from ancient times to 2015 and this is what all of us in the Resilience space believe. Resilience is the opportunity to deal with danger and turn threats to opportunism for growth. How quickly we achieve this is also described as bounce back!
Another heart based mindfulness technique developed by a U.S organisation called HeartMath, helps actively reduce the impact of high pressure and stress when practiced on a daily basis. The approach includes short and practical, easy-to-learn techniques that can be practiced on the go!
These simple coherence-building techniques can help 'reset' physiological reactions to stress as the event occurs. Just a couple of HeartMath breaths can get the individual back into and maintaining a coherent state and help stop the hormonal cascade that triggers the release of cortisol.
Long term, if someone chooses to apply mindfulness techniques to daily routines they can sustain a more coherent state. These practices are explored in more detail later on.
Emotional Self-Awareness and Regulation
At the heart of all successful people is a healthy and happy heart!
There are many factors that influence the road map to improving happiness, stress resistance and healthy aging.
As outlined above stress is a natural human response and one of nature's ways of enabling us to spot a threat or attack so we may respond appropriately to keep ourselves safe. So stress is not inherently bad, it is in fact a safety mechanism. While anger and all of its stress evoking emotions, like frustration and judgment, can motivate us to cope with life's adversities, stress can also become destructive if you do not develop personal effectiveness strategies to move away from these negative emotions when they no longer serve a beneficial process. Anger in particular is a powerful energy that can take over the body and mind, destroying relationships, ending careers and damaging health. However it can also give us courage to stand up for ourselves.
“To be angry is easy, to be angry with the right person at the right time and in the right way – that is not easy”
Part of building stress resistance is developing strategies to navigate through the bad times as well as the good. And heart based mindfulness gives you the ability to better regain control and recover more quickly by focusing on the heart’s response to stress.
It is scientifically proven that the heart responds to stress with an increase in heart rate and quicker and shallower breathing. When we are stressed, our heart rate is uneven. By learning how to bring your heart rate and breathing back to a regular pattern, we feel calmer, focused and have more mental clarity. The Harvard Business review reported that extreme stress has been found to be 6 times more indicative of sudden cardiac arrest. Knowing this, spotting the warning signs and developing strategies to regain control of our heart’s physical as well as an emotional response to stress has the potential to be a life sustaining practice.
The mindfulness in movement practice QiGong, has a positive regulating effect on the rhythm of the heart. This can be observed in changes in heart rate when someone enters the process of tranquility. At Beijing University a study of a controlled test group found that after the group entered a tranquil state, there was a tendency for the heart rate to decrease. After 20 minutes of practice the heart rate went from 83.5 bpm to 75.3bpm and this decreased further to 71.2 bpm after 30 minutes.
This improvement in heart rate was observed to last for 20 minutes after the test group participants were out of meditation. It can therefore be assumed that mindfulness in movement practices serves to regulate the function of cardiac rhythms. Movement by its very nature improves respiratory function and more as opposed to seated based practices. It is, therefore, in my opinion, a superior mindfulness based practice, especially for beginners who may find that their minds easily wander with seated based meditations.
Engaging not avoiding
The nature of QiGong is to be mindful and face adversity, not avoid it! Avoidance can be packaged as wanting to feel better, avoiding a negative experience however is not realistic nor does it recognise how adversity is an opportunity for growth and development. Sometimes we do just feel bad, and that is ok as long as we know how to change this when the negative feeling no longer serves us.
Avoidance is re-enforced by modern medicine where we are encouraged to take a pill to help us sleep, numb the pain, etc. Just wanting to feel better does not develop resilience to deal with life’s disappointments nor does it help us develop awareness of how we bounce back. The more we are open to our experiences, the more lessons we can draw from them and the more conscious we can become of our bodies.
During QiGong practice, the mind and breath depend on each other bringing focus and attention back to the here and now. In turn the body and mind harmonise and become coherent. Practicing QiGong over a longer period of time will allow harmonious connections to be made through the vital energy centres of the body. This can only happen when a balancing of emotions has been mastered both in and out of QiGong practice.
The majority of us are not consciously aware of these internal processes, nor are we aware that we can learn to control these. Mindfulness based practices are the key to resilience.
To get to the heart of who you truly are and how you bring this into the various facets of your life effectively takes a readiness to develop a deeper level of accepting and understanding of oneself. Recognising our range of emotions and our unconscious bodily functions that interplay with these emotions helps to merge the biology and science with a mindfulness practice.
When you are feeling good you tend to focus, attract and spend time on that which is good in your life, you will be heading towards desired goals and taking action to support these goals. A way to spend more time in a positive physical, mental and emotional state (i.e. feeling good!) is to learn how to recognise and regulate your emotions.
This will develop a strong connection to your true nature, but following your heart and knowing how to be you can be easier for some than others. Heart based mindfulness practices help you work towards being authentic, consciously awake and in harmony with who you truly are. Taking care of the physiological response in heart rate and heart rate variability creates the space to look at emotions and develop emotional mastery.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
The number of times the heart beats in a minute defines your heart rate. The analysis of the variation in the time intervals between heart beats is known as heart rate variability. The pattern of beat-to-beat changes is impacted by diet, stress and emotional experiences. Heart based mindfulness therefore gives you the choice to take back control of your emotional wellbeing as well as your physical heart health.
We can certainly learn about ourselves during times of adversity, even developing new skills, however, moving away from our true selves for too long depletes our emotional resilience. Knowing how to return to your original, authentic self after the challenge is key. This will improve stress resistance in the longer term and provide a sense of fulfillment and happiness overall.
Furthermore this positive outcome enhances the experience of others around us, such as our colleagues, customers and family. Positive Psychology describes this as the contagion effect; we wouldn't go to work and sneeze over a colleague, why then should we choose to experience negative emotions that affect our heart rhythm patterns?
The Chinese mindfulness practice of QiGong and in particular the four seasons, sometimes also referred to as the 5 elements theory, developed a system for emotional guidance. The system suggests that through breath, meditation and entering tranquility you develop the ability to turn negative to positive. By acknowledging negative emotions and letting go, you learn to transform stress into wisdom and opportunities for growth.
The US organisation HeartMath, has developed biofeedback technology to measure heart rate variability. HeartMath, like heart based mindfulness, works on the principle of controlling the natural variability in your heart rate by focusing on your heart, your breathing and positive emotions. The positive impact of shifting to a positive emotional state is shown on heart rate variability through the biometric feedback technology they have developed.
Given these points and the fact that once masters, mindfulness can be used at the moment of stress and in anticipation of stress (and is therefore a technique that is suitable for proactive use), we believe it is a very safe assumption that there are considerable benefits in using heart based mindfulness in wellbeing, employee engagement, and in leadership energy with drive a deeper level of self awareness sand understanding in your people. When combined with the Resilience Formula’s “stand up and stretch” programme which incorporates mindfulness, focus, breathing and movement practices applicable to the office environment, the potential impact is very positive.
Displayed below is a snapshot of data most relevant to the UK, which demonstrates the positive effects of a HeartMath programme in the US.
With a sample size of 5692, this Clinical Stress Risk Reduction research shows that after 6 weeks of taking part in the HeartMath programme, a significant reduction in the commonly recognised symptoms of stress was recorded.
A further study, with a sample size of 1400, showed the sustainability of the effects at 6 weeks and 6 months post programme:
Biometric feedback technology helps us to accurately measure results and see the improvements being made and can be used to measure the effectiveness of heart based mindfulness interventions. The beauty of technology is that is provides new insights into the science and effectiveness of mindfulness-based practices.
Mindfulness raises people’s performance and sense of wellbeing, equipping them with skills they can easily apply to every aspect of their life. However, you have to find a practice that resonates with you, for example, walking based meditation, mindfulness in movement, QiGong, HeartMath or heart based mindfulness. In my work over the past 5 years, I have found that most will have a similar positive impact on heart rate, breathing and heart rhythms.
Applying this in everyday 21st century lives
You’ve probably been in a situation where you start the day with a ‘perfect’ plan, but then something happens. You get angry if someone doesn’t co-operate; you get irritated or anxious if something doesn’t pan out the way you intended; you make a bad decision and you might even have feelings of panic.
A way to get over this is to prepare. Perhaps you feel you don’t have time, but by practicing mindfulness for just 15 minutes will set you up for the day. This could be seated or moving! Then, before an important phone call, meeting or presentation, you can practice for as little as 2 minutes and even perhaps another 30 seconds during that important call. Another 5 minutes at the end of the day to help you wind down and assess your achievements may be all you need to get rid of that stress, become more resilient and achieve better results. All of these actions will help you avoid those stress responses that could do you damage, impact relationships with customers, family and friends and move you further away from your heart’s desire!
If companies really want powerful and sustainable stress relief, then they must build the emotional resilience of the workforce. We must treat the causes of stress, not just the symptoms in order to achieve sustainable long-term effectiveness, but this takes a willingness to work with the mind body connection.
It’s easy to forget how much control we can have over our lives. We can become so focused on finding reasons why we can’t do or have something, when actually we just need to make some small adjustments in our lives to create opportunities. We either make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves stronger – the amount of effort is the same!
As humans, we tend to live in our heads not in our bodies. So the head tells a good or bad story and is not always great at differentiating perception from reality. Our heads can be useful for analysis, but we are at our most resilient when we are using all of our body and senses and being true to our heart. There is a lot to be said for the saying, listen to what your heart is telling you, when has it been wrong?
Remember what you focus on, you create J
Here is a simple 6-step heart based mindfulness practice:
2. Reconnect with your body – in particular your heart
3. Feel a positive emotion – aim to feel not just think it
4. Allow those emotions that do not serve you to come up, and let these go on a leaf flowing away from you on a gentle stream
5. After a minute bring your conscious awareness back into the room
6. What do you notice? What message did your heart have for you?
Heart based mindfulness can help you manage stress, improve mood and help soften unhelpful behaviours. Its meditative and self-reflective component along with a link to philosophy, can encourage a more balanced life.
Going beyond what has been factually proven, modern day science shows that rational human behaviours can be attributed to the heart. Eastern philosophy believes the heart governs a person’s physical and emotional characteristics. Given the integral role the heart plays in our physical as well as emotional health, it should not be a surprise that an unhealthy cardiovascular system is NOT good news.
The multi approach of mindfulness in movement proves not just cardiovascular risk factors but also deeper life purpose and emotional mastery. The gentle adaptable nature of mindfulness is safe and accessible to all, irrespective of entry levels of fitness, health and self-awareness of their psychology. It is fascinating to learn that you can lower your stress simply by taking deep breaths. It will not only help you feel better it will positively improve your biology, heart rate, breathing and ultimately heart rate variability. It may be common sense, but it is not always common practice and can all too easily be forgotten in a busy schedule. Taking breathing practices further towards emotional mastery improves the impact on heart rhythms and raises your capacity for resilience further.
The world’s great leaders, musicians, athletes and Olympians find their personal formula to create the greatest possible chance of success, and I would argue we all need to do the same. Stress and anxiety is not just for elite performers in life!
Both physical heart health and emotional states can be engaged with better control of the numerous rhythms in the heart. It is my number one belief that by harnessing control over stress we can keep ourselves, the people we care for, our teams and workforces in greater wellbeing. This seems a much better option, than the alternative which involves standing helplessly by while we all crash through exhaustion and burn out!
We are at a point where we can view stress management from a place of transformational opportunity, rather than reactive problem solving. The only way to do this is to work with the drivers of stress – the emotions - and that takes a willingness and readiness to get to the heart of the matter!
For organisations, cultivating a healthy working environment means more attention needs to be placed on helping employees build the necessary emotional, psychological, physical and social resilience required. Focusing on heart rate variability in Mindfulness is a practical approach which will allow your people to thrive, and in turn will reward your business with a motivated, high performing workforce where absenteeism is low, engagement is high and the ability to attract and retain talent are achieved.
Effect of diaphragmatic breathing on heart rate variability in ischemic heart disease with diabetes.
iHeartLift: A closed loop system with biofeedback that uses music tempo variability to improve heart rate variability.
The intriguing benefits of QiGong Harvard Medical
Can calming the mind heal your heart? Harvard Medical