Calming emotional overwhelm with HeartMath®
Part 1: Stress, inflammation and emotional regulation
In our complex, fast-paced world, the need for emotional regulation
has never been greater. While our physiology remains that of a
hunter-gatherer, our environment has changed dramatically,
subjecting us to chronic stress to which we are poorly adapted.
The fight-or-flight response evolved to help us survive an occasional
encounter with danger, but today most of us experience real
or imagined threats to our survival every time we switch on the
news, drive our cars, or receive a less than enthusiastic response
on Facebook. Whether the threat is an (actual) oncoming taxi
or the (imagined) fear of missing out, the hormone adrenalin is
triggered, initiating a cascade of biochemicals, including cortisol,
that constitutes the body’s stress response.
In less stressful environments, cortisol is a very helpful hormone. The
pre-dawn increase in cortisol serves to wake us up in the morning
and get us going. Cortisol takes about 13 hours to break down
in the body so, by evening, levels are low enough to allow us to
fall asleep naturally. Because it breaks down slowly, cortisol makes
possible a more sustained response to danger, after fast-acting
adrenalin has been used up. Unfortunately, if the stress response
is triggered often throughout the day, its slow breakdown means
that our cells remain bathed in a cortisol soup.
In addition to its involvement in circadian rhythms and the stress
response, cortisol also helps to regulate the body’s inflammatory
response. However, just as a high-sugar diet causes the body to
become insulin-resistant, so prolonged stress makes our tissues less
sensitive to the regulatory effects of cortisol, resulting in runaway
inflammation. Inflammation is now believed to trigger a wide
range of chronic diseases, from cardiovascular disease to autoimmune
conditions. Recognising the relationship between stress,
inflammation and ill health is a strong motivator to adopt regular
resilience-building practices, like meditation or HeartMath®.
While many stress triggers are external (like oncoming taxis), we also
create stress internally through our tendency to dwell on our regrets
and fears. Since the 1990s, the HeartMath® Institute in the USA1 has
been researching the role our emotions play in the stress response.
They discovered that emotions like anxiety and anger are reflected
in chaotic heart rhythms that trigger the stress response in the brain
and raise cortisol levels. On the other hand, emotions like calm
and appreciation produce regular heart rhythms, which decrease
cortisol production and raise levels of the hormone DHEA, which is
thought to be responsible for youthful vigour.
These two graphs represent our heart rhythms when we are
experiencing appreciation or frustration. These patterns cause
very different effects in the brain and body.
In a state of appreciation, the heart rate increases and decreases
in a regular pattern:
In a state of frustration, the heart rate increases and decreases
The HeartMath® Institute has developed personal bio-feedback
equipment2 that measures your heart rate variability (HRV),
allowing you to monitor yourself in real time. Simple HeartMath®
techniques that combine breath work and emotional regulation
help you manage your HRV and build resilience.
Since purchasing a HeartMath® monitor in 2011, I have for the
first time been able to sustain a daily mindfulness practice.
Understanding the relationship between my heart, emotions and
stress hormones has motivated me to return each morning to my
‘calm practice’ and to take greater responsibility for my emotional
state. I am amazed by the positive changes I have experienced
since starting my HeartMath® practice – including improved
emotional regulation, recovery from osteoporosis, healing of
relationships, and a closer connection to Nature.
Alice Ashwell PhD is a HeartMath® coach and Nature experience
facilitator. She offers life coaching, HeartMath® information sessions
and courses to help students address anxiety and perform better
Part Two explores fascinating new discoveries about the
science of the heart. No, the heart is NOT just a pump!
2 HeartMath produces three personal HRV monitors: see
Calming emotional overwhelm with HeartMath®
For more information, contact Alice on 082 720 7444 or email@example.com or visit http://heartofnature.co.za