I integrate lifestyle practices into my nutrition recommendations to address the wellbeing of body, mind, and spirit. Two words capture this approach: stress resilience.
This issue opens a peephole into profound, lasting stress resilience, habits of being that can serve you well through 2024 and beyond! My source here, Transforming Stress by Doc Childre and Deborah Roma, Ph.D., shows the research behind one of my key tools, HeartMath.
As always, please write to me with your thoughts and questions! I love hearing from you.
In Wellness, Mary Virginia
From ancient times, the heart has been identified as the seat of emotion. You’ve probably used terms like “heartfelt” and “from the heart” in your daily language to describe the warmth of a positive emotion. We also express sentiments like “that hurts my heart.”
But did you know that these feelings and sensations are much more than emotion? They are literal communications from the body to the brain - messages of safety and security or those of disconnection and distress. Those communications have everything to do with our thoughts, focus, decision-making, and mood.
HeartMath is a healing practice that reorients these communications from the heart to the brain to create focus, clarity, reason, and balanced mood in the face of hard things. Instead of reacting, we respond thoughtfully, from the heart.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic, that coordinate to keep us running. Hearts beat, lungs breathe, eyes blink, digestive tract digests, etc. Most of the time we’re not even aware these are happening. One of the few places where we can control how it happens is with our breath.
HeartMath accesses breath and harnesses it to our imaginative ability to call forth positive, regenerative emotions based on our experiences. An example is the Heart Lock-In technique. We focus on breath flowing in and out of the heart. We call forth a heartfelt sensation - love, appreciation, care, compassion, or any positive, healing emotion - that we allow to flow with the breath. It’s important to understand that during the practice we want the sensation of the emotion, not the intellectual memory. That is, the practice lives in the heart, not in the head. We measure the results of the practice through heart rate variability (HRV), which I describe below.
A high HRV ultimately directs the release of serotonin, dopamine, and hormones, changes the mechanical heart beat, and alters the heart’s electromagnetic field. (If you want a deeper dive, go here.) Moreover, the PENI systems (read about it in my prior newsletter here) begin to function optimally. Voilå - stress resilience.
The heart communicates emotional status to the brain in four different ways.
This is a cranial nerve that originates in the brain and then branches out through the body to touch the throat, the heart and lungs, all of the organs, and the intestinal tract. 80% of the communication through the vagus nerve is from the body - especially the heart - to the brain. It tells the hypothalamus what’s going on so that the brain can direct the right protective or healing response.
Coherence, Cognition, Clarity, and Capacity
Still yourself for a moment, and then place your hand on your heart. Sense your heartbeat. Feel your breath. What is your emotional state? Can you tell?
Emotion travels faster than thought, and the heart’s intuitive intelligence defines our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. HeartMath provides a guide to go deeper, find answers, and generate change.
Imagine repeatedly encountering a difficult person at work. They put you on edge, and you get in such a bad mood. You get snippy and irritable. Or perhaps you’re a student who has trouble focusing, and it gets worse with the pressure of a paper or a midterm. Your grades suffer, which makes you depressed and anxious. Or maybe you’re someone who worries a lot - constantly fretting. You feel like you have to control everything, from other people to what you eat. All of these can be measured in low HRV.
HeartMath practices increase our HRV, which enhances our self-awareness, alters our thought processes, and regulates our emotions. It opens our Window of Tolerance so that we can address hard things with clarity and perspective. This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel the difficulty, but we respond thoughtfully rather than with a kneejerk reaction. We can find another way to communicate with the difficult person. We are able to focus and approach the paper or test with calm confidence. Reason and good choices become available so that worry is less compelling.
The Stress Factor & Stress Habits
One guarantee of existence is that life is challenging! We usually have the same, repeating stress triggers, and we get in the habit of reacting the same ways every time. These are well practiced stress habits! Stress habits commonly show up as irritability, worry, anger, excessiveness, forgetfulness/brain fog, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbances, aches and pains, and even illness such as colds and flu.
I’ll bet you can feel stress physically in your body: tension, headache, racing heart, shallow breathing, digestive upset, feeling sick…it feels lousy.
We can reshape our stress habits to be more healing and productive, though!
Thousands of times a second the body communicates sensations and messages through the vagus nerve to the hypothalamus. It directs information to the brain’s cortex (executive function, focus, decision-making), which then sends the now organized data to the amygdala and hippocampus (in the limbic system) for memory storage.
The amygdala chooses the tone of stored memories (experiences) based on messaging from the cortex and the heart combined with sensory input - sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. Fascinatingly, “…the cells in the core of the amygdala synchronize to the heartbeat.”
Not surprisingly, stress habits install a bypass straight to the amygdala. Imagine the core cells of the amygdala vibrating incoherently! Negative emotions, a closed mind, fear, anxiety, and worry inform the creation of memory and associate it with the sensory experiences that accompany it. Stress habits develop as protective mechanisms to the fear and uncertainty embedded in memory.
Stress Response - Hormones and Mood
Incoherent HRV is related to the release of stress chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol. Persistent incoherence and the stress response support a downward trend of emotional dysregulation, a closed mindset, and a sense of impossibility. A coherent HRV triggers the release of positive mood chemicals, such as dopamine, DHEA, oxytocin, and BDNF. These lead to stress resilience and a beneficial upward spiral.
Stress habits are also significant contributors to preventable lifestyle diseases related to nutritional status, such as Type 2 Diabetes, cholesterol imbalances, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, mood disorders, emotional eating, sleep disorders, cancer, dementia, and more.
Our bodies intertwine the function of three brains to define our quality of life:
Coherence makes us resilient in the face of others’ stress habit-born incoherence. Because the electromagnetic fields of our hearts reach so far into the environment around us, negative emotions and stress habits can be like an easily transmittable virus to others. Those with strong immune systems are better able to ward off illness. Well established coherence protects us from the ‘infection’ of others’ incoherence.
Better yet, research studies have demonstrated that our own HRV can be measured in the brain waves of those around us. Therefore, our emotional status literally changes the emotions of those near us. Have you ever entered a room and sensed the mood? That mood is emotional content as expressed by HRV in those folks. By establishing our own coherent HRV before encountering others, we can pass our resilience along to them.
The Beat Goes On
HeartMath offers a concrete, accessible path to physical and mental health. A practice session can last as long as we choose, and benefits can be felt in as few as 1 to 3 minutes.
The journey to stress resilience is found in the flexibility and adaptability of the heart. It is key to overall wellbeing. As you celebrate and reflect this holiday season, become aware of your own heart’s wisdom. Together let’s build a world of healing, resilience, and connection!
I am Mary Virginia Coffman (I go by “Mary Virginia”), a clinical nutritionist who focuses on mental health, digestive health, metabolic health, and nervous system regulation. My unique combination of clinical interventions, education, and coaching will help you feel well in body, mind, and spirit.