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Listen to Your Heart: The Power of Cardiac Coherence

Listen to Your Heart: The Power of Cardiac Coherence
Cardiac coherence is a synchronized and empowering state associated with feelings of well-being, relaxation and improved cognitive function. (Credit: renaudfulconis.com)

Underpinned by developing technology and a wide range of apps, cardiac coherence delivers multiple benefits, particularly in high-stress situations. This synchronized and empowering state is associated with feelings of well-being, relaxation and improved cognitive function.

Critical Connection 

Most of us may not realize it but the heart does far more than simply pump oxygenated blood around the body. This multifunctional organ actually represents a unique interface between our emotional states and their equivalent physiological responses. 

There are at least 40,000 neurons in the heart communicating with different areas of the brain, including the amygdala, thalamus and cortex. In daily life, this means it’s not only our hearts that are continually responding to our brains, but vice versa as well. 

There are at least 40,000 neurons in the heart communicating with different areas of the brain, including the amygdala, thalamus and cortex. (Credit: iStock)
There are at least 40,000 neurons in the heart communicating with different areas of the brain.
(Credit: iStock)

In fact, facilitated by the vagus nerve, the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. These heart signals have a significant impact on brain function—not only influencing our emotional processing, but cognitive function too, including attention, perception, memory and problem-solving. 

The vagus nerve also oversees a vast range of other critical functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to every organ in the body.

A Synchronized State 

The significant influence of the heart on the way our bodies function reveals itself in an optimal state known as “cardiac coherence.” This is evaluated by monitoring a parameter known as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is a measure of the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. 

HRV is an important indicator of both physiological resilience and behavioral flexibility, reflecting a person’s ability to effectively manage stress and environmental demands. As such, scientists and physicians consider HRV to be an important indicator of health and fitness.

Dr. Rollin McCraty is a psychophysiologist and Director of Research at the HeartMath Institute, a US-based nonprofit founded in the early 1990s that works to help people bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into balanced alignment with the heart. He explained:

“Essentially, cardiac coherence is a type of coherence that occurs when our body’s systems—our breathing, heart rhythms, brain rhythms and hormonal response—are in sync with each other.

Cardiac coherence is a synchronized and empowering state—physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually—which is associated with feelings of wellbeing, relaxation and improved cognitive function.”

Enhancing Coherence

Each one of us deals with stress differently, whether that stress is mental, emotional or social. This sees our cardiac coherence fluctuate from moment to moment. But what if we could train our hearts to be in coherence more often, particularly during times of greater stress? 

To be able to induce a state of cardiac coherence it is first important to understand a little about the body’s autonomic nervous system. Physiologically, heart-brain coherence is characterized by an increased ratio of HRV in the higher frequency band (associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates rest and relaxation), and a decreased ratio in the lower frequency band (associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s fight or flight response). 

In combination with a healthy diet and regular exercise, research has shown that techniques such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing can increase cardiac coherence. The practice of these techniques activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes calmness in both the mind and body, resulting in a highly ordered, smooth, sine-wave-like heart rhythm pattern.

Rollin McCraty said:

“Essentially, enhancing cardiac coherence is all about learning to better self-regulate, particularly in high stress situations, such as being stuck in a traffic jam or a difficult board meeting.

When the heart and brain are in an incoherent state, this interferes with cortical stimulation, which has all kinds of negative impacts. With practice you can make the shift into coherence right in the moment.”

Technology to the Fore 

Awareness of cardiac coherence and how it can help bodily self-regulation is on the rise. Everyone from Olympic athletes and US Navy personnel to police officers, corporate employees and patients in the mental healthcare space have benefitted from cardiac coherence training.  

The HeartMath Institute itself has certified around 8000 cardiac coherence trainers to date, while there are around 70,000 healthcare professionals in the US who teach cardiac coherence to their patients.  

A growing range of technological tools can be useful in helping people to achieve an optimal state of HRV. The HeartMath Institute itself offers emWave and Inner Balance heart-rhythm coherence feedback devices and two apps that are free to download.

The emWave2 system features several components—a handheld device, a computer program and lots of graphs. Designed for personal use, it also adds a computer interface and desktop program for tracking results. 

There is a wide range of other apps for enhancing cardiac coherence, including Cohera and My Cardiac Coherence.

The Cohera App.
The Cohera App
My CardiacCoherence App
My CardiacCoherence App

The Cohera app allows you to help control your breathing by first making it more regular and then reducing the number of breaths per minute. The user simply inhales as the water droplet rises and exhales as it descends. A vibration helps them perform the exercise with their eyes closed. A menu allows them to specify the exercise duration and the number of breaths per minute. The expert mode allows the user to precisely set the inspiration and expiration time and adds a breath-holding function.

Regarding the My Cardiac Coherence app, the principle is the same except that the user listens to the natural sound of waves to relax, enabling them to do heart coherence with their eyes closed, as they will synchronize their breathing rhythm with that of the waves.

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