We have long known that the heart is an intuitive organ – we understand that things are ‘heartfelt’, and a broken heart is what we feel if we are very sad. These colloquial terms are not just random, they express what we have always known, that the heart with its has a central importance to health and wellbeing, and often senses things before the brain (McCraty, 2004)[i]. Indeed, “the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system”[ii]. This is what enables a heart transplant to work before the vagus nerve is fully functional. It is also an endocrine organ producing oxytocin, the bonding hormone with others. Its electromagnetic field is huge and is largely responsible for allowing us to attune to other people (or not!).
It is an organ of coherence; when its electromagnetic rhythm is in harmony with others we feel at ease and at peace with the world. This is the desired outcome of all meditative endeavours and is an essential pre-requisite to fully achieve health and wellbeing. The origin of coherence is in the heart and its connection with the brain however; specifically the amygdala which it innervates via its afferent (towards the brain) nerves. When these two are in harmony you feel at ease with yourself, motivated and authentic in thought and deed. You can see therefore another instance of the mind-body connection in operation that we are only now beginning to ascertain.
Did you know there is an easy way to measure your heart coherence? It’s called HRV (heart Rate Variability) and it used to be something you could only measure when hooked up to a specialised electrocardiogram (ECG) machine but happily this is now made a lot easier by simple free ‘apps’ that you can download onto your smartphone or tablet. They work by reading the blood flow in your finger through holding it against the camera light. I have used the most readily available free one, HeartMonitor and, although I cannot vouch for its accuracy compared to a professional machine, as a relative tool for marking your stress levels it is brilliant as you can take different measurements at different times in your life. For instance, I measured mine after a stressful day at work (where my day is not my own but I am subject to the deadlines and priorities of others) compared to a day at my clinic with my clients. The differences were startling – a 50% difference. HRV is a powerful, objective and non-invasive tool to measure your body’s finely tuned hormonal, behavioural responses to the day to day stresses. I urge many of my clients to begin noticing theirs and seeing if, by consciously focusing on the screen output, to alter it. This is a useful biofeedback tool which sets the stage for tuning in to the body’s response; you alter the output by ‘focusing’ on trying to make the waves increase in amplitude (height) and become more regular. This is biofeedback in action.
This is an extract from my book Stress and the Mindbody connection available now on Amazon See here to purchase copies (digital or paperback) . I am a practicing therapist who offers mindbody therapy and trauma transformation here; www.alchemytherapies.co.uk
[i] McCraty, et al (2004). Electrophysiological evidence of intuition: part 1. The surprising role of the heartJ. Altern Complement Med. Feb;10(1):133-43.