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illustration of a person with heart beat line

If you’ve ever visited an acupuncture or acupressure clinic, you’ve experienced a practitioner getting a read on you by taking your pulse. He or she is not just checking for speed, but feeling for different qualities, such as fullness, strength, and variability. This helps the practitioner determine your state of internal tension or well-being.

The rhythms of the heart are also a key indicator of our overall emotional and physical state. We’re all familiar with the sensation of our heart racing when we’re nervous or afraid, but our heart rate speeds up and slows down all the time. This is perfectly normal.

We tend to think of the heart beating at a regular, steady pace, but it’s actually quite irregular. Your heart might beat 60 times per minute, but the interval between beats might range from half a second to a second and a half. That’s called heart-rate variability, or HRV (learn more at “What Is Heart-Rate Variability?“.)

HRV is important because it reflects the state of your overall health. More specifically, it reflects the state of your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which keeps the physiology running smoothly — including the function of your heart and digestive systems — and regulates your stress response.

Out of Sync

When you feel off, especially with emotions, sleep, or digestion, it can often indicate nervous-system dysregulation.

The ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system, which is activating, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming. These are designed to maintain balance in the body, putting you on high alert when necessary, then helping you rest and recover.

You need both of them. That rac­ing heart helps you spring into action; that rest-and-digest phase pre­pares you for whatever comes next. Cultivating resiliency allows you to respond quickly and adapt readily to changing circumstances.

When the sympathetic and para­sympathetic nervous systems are working in harmony, the body is in a state of balance, and you’re likely to feel a general sense of well-being. The heart and the brain are connected, so this pleasant, secure feeling is reflected in an even, regular HRV pattern. We call this heart-rate coherence, and it looks like this:

chart showing smooth waving lines of positive emotions

By contrast, whenever you find yourself stuck in negative emotions like fear or frustration, the brain communicates this state of alarm to the heart, and the HRV becomes highly irregular, or “incoherent,” like this:

chart showing jagged line of heart rate with negative emotions

This is a great example of the mind–body connection. It also shows that we have an opportunity to intervene in our well-being just by paying attention to our thoughts.

Find Your Rhythm

When we cultivate positive emotions like appreciation, calm, or happiness, our bodies will gradually shift toward heart-rate coherence.

There are plenty of uncomplicated, affordable devices that make it easy to measure your own HRV, such as those from HeartMath. These are essentially biofeedback systems: You perform simple mind–body exercises while watching your heart rate on a screen, noticing whether it’s in a jagged, incoherent line or a smooth, coherent one. This makes you an eyewitness to your thoughts influencing your physiology.

Still, the goal is to learn to move toward greater coherence at will, not just when you’re measuring it with a device. This is something you can do anytime, anywhere, just by becoming more conscious of your thoughts and seeking images and ideas that help you settle down.

Learning to cultivate positive emotions won’t prevent stressful situations from arising, but it can equip us with the tools we need to respond to them more effectively — and to blunt the long-term effects that stress can produce.

A better-regulated nervous system improves heart and digestive function as well as emotional health. Learning to create heart-rate coherence is a wonderful way to get your groove back.

This article originally appeared as “On the Beat” in the May 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD

Henry Emmons, MD is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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