Have you ever had a bit of bad news that suddenly spreads across your mind and body like an Australian wildfire? No matter what you do to distract yourself, it keeps just coming back to the forefront of your mind. If it happens at work you can’t concentrate on the pressing report your boss is screaming for or if it is at home you slowly begin to shut yourself off from others so you can slip away into a deep dark cave. I have been guilty of this more times than I can remember.
About six months ago I discovered a company called HeartMath and quickly became interested in their technology that claims to ‘transform your stress, boost your resilience and empower high performance’. I reached out to the UK Managing Director to find out more about the Inner Balance, emWave Pro and the practice of coherence.
Heart Rate Variability – HRV
Before I dive into how Heathmath works and it’s snazzy products, I thought I should give a very brief explanation as to what HRV is. HRV measures the the variation in the time interval between heartbeats, often measured using an electrocardiogram (ECG) device.
Without diving too deeply as this stage, a high HRV score is desirable and a low HRV score is associated with unbalance in the body’s nervous system. Two components of HRV I’d like to draw your attention to are two frequencies: high frequency measures your parasympathetic nervous systems and low frequency measures your sympathetic nervous system. Both of this comprise of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and you want to have them balanced at a ration of 1:1. When someone is chronically stressed the ratio can become extremely out of kilter.
For more on HRV, check out Ben Greenfield’s several podcasts on the subject.
HeartMath uses ‘biofeedback’ technology that uses, i.e. ‘the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function’. It’s methodology uses emotional self-regulation techniques that affect your heart rate variability (HRV), which I’ll come back to to explain.
The emotional self-regulation techniques incorporate a physical focus on balanced breathing (primarily focussing on the heart) and putting your mind into a positive state. How would you like to control the state of your mind? You have direct control of being able to alter your mental state, you just need to put the practice in!
When you are stressed the rhythm of your heartbeat becomes extremely erratic and unpredictable. By focusing on these techniques it begins to regulate the HRV and reduces the chaos in the brain. Generating sustained positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift. This state is what HeartMath term as ‘psychological coherence, because it is characterized by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily) processes’.
Heartmath is not to be confused with relaxation. In your sessions you are actively working towards achieving a state of high coherence. By entering this state there is an ‘increase in harmony and synchronization in the nervous system and heart brain dynamics’.
For further resources, please check out their catalogue of videos by clicking here.
How They Work
Quite simply, both the Inner Balance and the emWave Pro measures the variation of (heart) beat to beat intervals, via the sensor clipped to your ear to give you your HRV figure. It also doubles up as an electrocardiogram (ECG) device by detecting the electrical signal orginating from the heart, which shows your power output in variables that relate to your autonomic nervous system.
The Inner Balance device is the most accessible to the general consumer out of their product line, retailing at £109. You simply connect the attachment to your iPhone, download the app and then clip the device onto your earlobe.
The app is simple, it has a breath pacemaker and you can also bring up a few pictures that help stimulate the positive coherent state. The beauty of the inner balance is that it is easily portable, making it a great tool to keep in your top drawer at work when you get a little bit stressed. I believe this product is a fantastic bridge for those of you who aren’t willing to experiment with practices such as meditation because you believe it is too ‘woo woo’! This makes the Inner Balance the ideal product to get into schools, organisations, athletes and high powered executives.
The emWave Pro is designed primarily for instructors, but if you are serious about high performance and can afford £228 then I would urge to opt for this. It operates in a similar way to the Inner Balance, i.e. it gets clipped to your ear. However, you need to be connected to a computer to operate the software.
The emWave Pro provides a much deeper insight to your data by providing information (number of RR intervals, mean heart rate, mean inter beat interval, SDNN, RMSSD, total power, power of very low, low and high frequency ranges and the LF/HF ratio), as well as letting you run HRV assessments. The ‘coherence ratio’ in the app provides you with the percentages that you spend in a low, medium or high coherence state. This makes the session extremely quantifiable and gives you something to track over time.
The other aspect to the emWave Pro version are the ‘games, coach and visualisers’ which offer interactive, game style interfaces. This keeps your training fresh so you are more likely to stick with that training.
This additional information is vital for the true biohacker as it brings it up to speed with other HRV monitors on the market, as well providing feedback for coherence. As far as I am aware, no other HRV monitor provides interactive games, visuals or as in depth analysis as Heartmath.
Does it work?
Below is the chart of a session I ran. I wanted to really test if it could pick up whether or not I was in a positive coherent state. At the start of the session, I followed the breath pacer and had relatively neutral thoughts. I then turned my thoughts to anger and as you can see the chart rapidly becomes irregular and drops. As soon as I flipped the thoughts in my head to positive emotions the high coherent state came back, matched with a much smoother HRV graph.
I’ve been using the HeartMath technologies now for about four months and I am confident it has played a huge part in me trying to manage my stress. Thanks to my training I can take what I learnt and apply it in real life. If I am out and about and find something that is typically upsetting, I quickly try to find that positive coherent state. Using HeartMath has further strengthened the notion that we can be in control of 100% of our thoughts and emotions.
If you have any questions I’d love to hear any in the comment section below!