Chronic stress (via prolonged stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system) is toxic to the body and mind, and is causally linked to a wide-range of deleterious conditions (examples):
- Anxiety Disorders
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Cardiac-related morbidity and mortality
- Cognitive impairment
- Coronary heart disease
- Chronic pain
- Digestive problems (i.e. IBS, etc.)
- Immune suppression (leading to increased susceptibility to viral infections, etc.)
- Headache (migraine and tension)
- Memory impairment
- Sedentary Lifestyle
- Skin problems (i.e. eczema, etc.)
- Substance Abuse
Effects of Chronic Stress:
Periods of long-term exposure to stress wreaks havoc on nearly every cell type in the body. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which through elevated levels of stress hormones (i.e. cortisol, norepinephrine, etc.), free radicals and inflammatory hormones directly and indirectly damage DNA, stimulate tumor growth and metastasis and suppress the immune system.
(**Also, See our post on stress, depression and cancer**)
Stress Reduction Through Breathing:
It is well-recognized that by practicing stress management and relaxation techniques, individuals can decrease their SNS stimulation while increasing parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) stimulation- a state referred to as the “relaxation response.” We are able to turn on the relaxation response by activating our vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our body (extending from the brain stem to the base of the spine and to several organs and your heart) by learning to change our breathing and learning to change our focus.
Each of us has a unique breathing frequency that will maximally stimulate the vagus nerve. By tuning in to this unique breathing pattern, you can more quickly and efficiently reach the highest levels of relaxation response possible.
Heart Rate Variability:
Years of practice finding this optimal breathing pattern (i.e. through yoga, deep breathing exercises, meditation, etc.) can be shortened to minutes of practice by using a small, palm-sized biofeedback device that measures heart rate variability (HRV). The normal variability in heart rate is due to the synergistic action of the two branches (SNS and PNS) of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—the part of the nervous system that regulates most of the body’s internal functions. The SNS acts to accelerate heart rate, while the PNS nerves slow it down. The SNS and PNS are continually interacting to maintain cardiovascular activity in its optimal range and to permit appropriate reactions to changing external and internal conditions. The analysis of HRV therefore serves as a dynamic window into the function and balance of the ANS.
All healthy hearts have a natural variation from beat to beat, although when you are stressed, that variable pattern is chaotic and disordered. Relaxation and emotional balance leads to an ordered and rhythmic heart rate pattern; this state of variation is known as “heart coherence.”
In addition to breathing techniques, one of the most powerful factors that affect our heart’s changing rhythm is our emotional state.
Negative emotions (i.e. anger, frustration, and anxiety) give rise to heart rhythm patterns that appear irregular and erratic: the HRV waveform looks like a series of uneven, jagged peaks (an example is shown in the figure to the right: “Frustration”). This is an example of an incoherent heart rhythm pattern.
In contrast, positive emotions (i.e. appreciation, joy, care, and love) give rise to a heart rhythm pattern that is highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave (an example is shown in the figure to the right: “Appreciation”). This is called a coherent heart rhythm pattern. Focusing on feelings of positive emotions and maintaining these feelings significantly contribute to heart coherence. (*As in the book, The Secret, by feeling and thinking positive thoughts, you will attract them to you (“the law of attraction”).
Achieving HRV coherence has been scientifically validated in numerous studies to decrease stress, improve mental clarity and overall emotional balance. Learn much more about HRV and coherence here.
The two most popular handheld biofeedback devices are the emWave and the Stress Eraser. Both of these devices measure your HRV via an infrared finger or earlobe sensor that identifies the pulsation associated with each heart beat.
These devices use visual cues (colorized light indicators or graphical displays) to show you, in real-time, whether your breathing pattern is optimized to place you within the coherent HRV zone.
Once you have learned how to breath at this unique frequency and pattern and enter a positive emotional state, you can quickly apply this whenever you feel stressed or anxious or to simply enhance health, performance and overall feelings of calmness.
I bought the first model of the emWave a few years ago at a medical conference (what can I say, I’m a gadget fanatic.) It was a great purchase, as I still employ the techniques I learned with this device to help me relax.
We support any stress reduction technique that helps our patients feel more calm and be better able to cope with the stressors of their day to day life.
Using biofeedback is simply a tool to teach you how to quickly achieve this relaxed and balanced emotional state.