Measuring the Heart Rate-Brain Connection

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health
Last Reviewed 02/24/2014

I truly believe in the heart-brain connection. And now there is science to support what I noticed happening with hospitalized patients who were hooked up to cardiac monitors right in front of me: heart rate and blood pressure fluctuate with more than exertion and medication. They respond directly to whoever ELSE is in the room with you.

Whether it’s the lab with an uncomfortable test, a doctor or a family member, I watched as emotions definitely affect cardio-dynamics. And I observed, while measuring heart rates, as emotions even affected cardiac arrhythmias.

Measuring Heart Rate, Emotions

Luckily, more recent scientific investigation into the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and mortality from cardiovascular disease has also generated interventions to intercept dangerous conversations between the brain and the heart.

Kudos to the researchers at the HeartMath Institute who’ve come to this conclusion: “The heart possesses its own organized intelligence network that enables it to act independently, learn, remember and produce feelings.” As they point out, these functions were thought to be unique to the brain. But pioneering scientists like Candace Pert, Ph.D., now propose that all of our cells might generate their own “molecules of emotion.”

Tools to Measure Heart Rate Variability, Promote Heart Health 

Through years of studies involving thousands of people, researchers at HeartMath and elsewhere have shown how heart rate variability responds to the autonomic nervous system. Based on their scientific study, the HeartMath team has developed a portable handheld device as well as a computer-based program designed for personal stress relief. 

Their research shows that their tools positively impact heart rate variability. Both the Emwave ($199) and the Stresseraser ($299) are biofeedback-type devices that involve using the breath for stress reduction.  

The Stresseraser home computer program allows you to measure your heart rate variability pattern in real time and learn how to increase the variability through breathing, as well as interactive games. There are also several videos that detail this, one on how the emwave works, and another for more on the science behind the Stresseraser.   

Breathing Benefits Your Heart

I've known about the relationship between breathing and heart disease since Meyer Friedman’s seminal work describing the coronary-prone Type-A personality and the chaotic breathing patterns associated with their heard-driving, impatient, time-urgent and competitive behavior. Many others of us just simply “forget” to breathe deeply into the diaphragm and r-e-l-a-x. 

Teaching you to breathe in a way that lowers stress and benefits your heart is an exciting prospect, and there’s a sample of the engaging and relaxing emwave heart visualizer that can help you practice your intention to relax.   

But one of our all-time favorite ways to focus on your heart is a simple process based on the Freeze Frame technique. Freeze-Frame was again developed by the folks at HeartMath, where it’s been shown that we can all improve our heart-rhythm patterns when we intentionally experience positive feelings such as care and appreciation. Freeze-Frame is a multipurpose technique they’ve even employed with Fortune 500 companies to reduce emotional chaos and stress to improve critical decision-making. 

In addition to improving heart rate variability, all this stress reduction translates to thinking more clearly, getting sick less often and maybe even living longer. So, as the HeartMath folks say, “go ahead, let your heart decide.”  

Here’s my Freeze-Frame adaptation from their website excerpt of the Quick Coherence™ technique, which you’ll find in their book Transforming Stress.

  • FOCUS ON YOUR HEART: Gently place your hand over your heart, close your eyes and bring your attention to your heart.

  • B-R-E-A-T-H-E INTO YOUR HEART:  Keep your focus on the heart by breathing gently, five seconds in, then five seconds out. Breathe slowly, and deeply into and through the area of your heart for 1- 2 minutes.

  • F-O-C-U-S…

  • FEEL WITH YOUR HEART:  Think of someone you really care for/ really appreciate having in your life. Focus on this good heart feeling as you continue breathing through the area of your heart.

It's pretty much impossible to hold onto the feeling of a stressful or negative thought when you have the face of someone you love, care about and appreciate in your mind’s eye while you feel your emotional connection to them in your heart. So give this simple technique a try and see what YOU feel. 

Exercise for Heart Health

Remember, too, that exercise—and all the deeper breathing it involves—also improves heart rate variability, so whatever exercise you do, include a bit of conscious deep breathing in your routine. Even if you are out walking the dog, take a D-E-E-P breath then push it out with some gusto (my Thai buddy Liza calls that “Praná breathing”). Repeat five to six times. You’ll help detox your body, really move air, re-oxygenate and improve your heart rate variability at the same time. 

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