My excitement is mounting as I continue with my HeartMath biofeedback training. It makes me happy, like the satisfying feeling of puzzle pieces falling into place, when my various interests become entrained and synchronous. Entrainment, as the story goes, was first spotted in 1665 by a Dutch clock maker, Christiaan Huygens, who stumbled on the phenomenon that pendulum clocks begin to move in synchronization with each other over time.
Let me explain my entrainment experience. In my profession of psychotherapy, I help clients to develop self-regulation of emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and memories in the pursuit of long-term goals. I use a variety of techniques including cognitive behavioral therapies, guided imagery, body scan and progressive muscle relaxation and breathing techniques. In my 30s, I discovered yoga and practiced for some time before I realized how it was helping me to moderate my anxiety. I later became a yoga instructor and, this year, I completed my training as a yoga therapist. Let's just say I'm a perpetual student.
I discovered the benefits of yoga for depression, anxiety, trauma, and stress just to name a few mental health issues, and was determined to understand how that process worked.
I was involved in research at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's Eating Disorders Program, where I've been employed for almost 14 years. The research involved some of our patients who struggled with anorexia. We included 24 teenage girls, 12 of whom continued with traditional treatment for anorexia [with a medical doctor, dietitian and a psychotherapist]. The other 12 girls received traditional treatment and participated in twice a week gentle yoga for 6 months at my yoga studio. All 24 got pre- and post-study fMRIs, DXA scans and psychological testing. While in the fMRI machine, each were shown a variety of neutral pictures [chair, table, brush] and a variety of foods [cake, ice cream, spinach, carrots, meat]. We discovered in the pre-study fMRIs that all the girls struggled with certain foods which lit up centers in the brain related to stress, worry, and fear. At the end of the study, we discovered that the girls who engaged in the yoga experienced fewer symptoms of stress, worry and fear than the control group. Why? The yoga participants received something the control group did not receive. They obtained, through yoga, additional self-regulation tools needed for recovery. As a side note, the control group girls received a 24-class pass for yoga as an expression of our gratitude for their participation in the study.
Since that time, I spend a lot of time with my patients, with or without eating disorders, on the development of emotional self-regulation and psychological flexibility. These skills are important for anyone - just very good life skills, overall.
Recently, I've started training in HeartMath biofeedback which measures heart rate variability and uses a number of techniques, including breathing and visualization, as ways to concretely see on an EKG when the body is depleted and not in coherence, as well as when the body is in a state of coherence. When in coherence, the body, mind, and emotions are synchronized in a calm, peaceful state of renewal. What's useful, is that patients can see on the monitor when they are and are not in coherence and what they are doing that supports coherence [use of breath and other techniques similar to the benefits of yoga and meditation].
There are several reasons why people meditate or practice yoga. Whether you practice for more inner peace, for self-reflection, more connection with yourself and others or increased spiritual awareness, a yoga and/or meditation practice can help. Alternatively, the stress of our world creates a situation that does not make it easy to be centered and stay balanced. Many people find it difficult to calm down their body and mind due to seemingly perpetual sympathetic nervous system stimulation. Yoga and meditation helps.
However, an added tool is biofeedback which shows the effects of stress on one's physiology. Through training in coherence practices the following outcomes are experienced:
enhancement of ability to maintain composure during challenges
improvement of family and social harmony
reduction of fatigue
promotion of the body's natural regenerative processes
improvement of coordination and reaction times
enhancement of ability to think clearly and find better solutions
improvement of ability to learn and achieve higher test scores
increased access to intuitive intelligence
The practice of these HeartMath skills brings a state of alert relaxation, the same state experienced in yoga and meditation. I'm a proponent of having a variety of tools in our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual toolbox. As they say, "If you only have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail." The more skills to choose from, the better. In my opinion, HeartMath contributes to a speedy increase in self-awareness with concrete evidence for what works and how it works.
There was an interesting study [C. Peressutti et al. / Revista Andalusa Medicina del Deporte. 2011;4(2):58-62] of Zen monks which found that the more advanced monks tended to have coherent heart rhythms. Another study of long-term Buddhist practitioners found that
while the practitioners generated a state of unconditional loving-kindness and compassion, increases in gamma band oscillation and long-distance phase synchrony in the brain were also observed, which reflects a change in the quality of moment-to-moment awareness. The characteristic patterns of baseline activity in these long-term meditators were found to be different from those of a control group, suggesting that an individual’s baseline state can be improved with practice.
I love when all of my professional interests converge and head in the same direction. It's so satisfying and affirming! My HeartMath biofeedback training will be complete in early June. I've got some sessions under my belt and am blissfully slogging through an boatload of homework and webinars. To become certified, I will present a case study to the HeartMath Institute, and then I'll be on my way -- additional self-regulation techniques, protocols and technology tools in hand to guide clients to a new physiological baseline that results in improved and sustainable perceptual, attitudinal and behavioral competence.