HeartMath®: A Dynamic Window into the Autonomic Nervous System

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” –Joseph Campbell

You may have heard of HeartMath®, but did you ever wonder what is or try to explain it someone else? Or perhaps HeartMath® and the concept of heart coherence is new to you altogether. This short article will explore what HeartMath® is (more broadly HRV) and how a HeartMath® centered practice can support healing, personal growth, and inner transformation.

HeartMath® is a research and technology institute that focuses on mastering the harmful effects of stress through the power of the human heart, and what it calls “heart coherence”.  Physiological coherence in general is the synchronization of all the oscillating fields within and outside the body—simply think of it as Joseph Campbell explains in the above quote: we are syncing our heartbeats with the heartbeat of the universe. The weaker fields within the body (i.e. brain waves, respiration) will align with the stronger field of the heart. Electro-magnetic fields nesting within resonating elects-magnetic fields. It is a moment of tao, all is aligned with the great oneness and flow of the universe.
As a technologically based culture, we have “forgotten” the role of heart beyond that of a pump. Wisdom Traditions throughout human history understood that the heart is the source of truth and wisdom. People before the scientific revolution “thought” with their hearts, and believed that the heart was the connection between our finite human nature and the infinite universe. Stress halts the communication with our heart and results in chaotic heart rhythm patterns. Essentially, heart coherence is the harmonious relationship between heart rate and surrounding electro-magnetic patterns, big (earth, sun, universe) and small (brain, respiration). The smaller or weaker fields sync up to the stronger ones, much like a room full of pendulum clocks will eventually sync up to the strongest one.
Essentially, HeartMath® technologies measure the heart’s rhythm using biofeedback. This differs from an ECG where each heart beat is analyzed based on the morphology of the heart beats; rather, HeartMath® measures heart rate variability (HRV), the time intervals between heart beats as shown below.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the naturally occurring changes in the amount of time between heartbeats, a naturally occurring process. This differs from your average heart rate – the number of beats that occur in any given minute. You may think that if your average heart rate is 60 beats per minute, then the heart should beat once a second.
That would result in zero variation or an HRV of zero (which may not be physiologically possible). In “A healthy heart is not a metronome,” the authors McCraty R, Shaffer F. et. al. explain how a healthy heart will increase smoothly as you inhale and decrease smoothly as you exhale—independent of heart rate. The metaphor of a metronome may be contrasted to that of a pendulum, which better reflects a healthy heart. As a pendulum swings from the center position off to the left it loses some speed as the influence of gravity kicks in. It again speeds up as it comes back to center; the cycle continues as it ever so slightly slows as it goes up to the right.
Similarly, your heart rate slows on the exhale and speeds up on the inhale. Heart rate is regulated by the vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve). Briefly, the vagus nerve “wanders” (vagus, Latin for wander) through the body and affects all major organs and their functioning. It is the second largest nerve in the body, second only to the spinal cord. Originating deep within the brain, the vagus nerve wanders through the neck, affecting speech, voice, continues through the thorax affecting all the organs of the body, and continues to the pelvic floor.
Ancient yogis referred to the vagus nerve as the “central tuning string of the body,” because when it vibrates at the proper frequency, the heart generates an electromagnetic field that is harmonious and coherent. When the vagus nerve oscillates coherently, it sets the frequency to which the nervous system aligns itself. When the vagus nerve is “out of tune,” then the rest of the body falls into a state of incoherence, including the heart.
These heart rate changes are subtle and are likely imperceptible to you. What is important is the rate of change of heart rate. Do you see why its called HeartMath®?
You do not need to be a mathematician however to use HRV feedback, you simply practice with an iPhone app and shift from the red zone into the blue and green, green reflecting a high level of heart coherence. Heart coherence is a term coined by HeartMath® that reflects an optimized HRV. Visually, a heart is a state of physiological coherence generates a sine wave as shown below.

The body’s natural state is one of coherence, yet most people live in a state of incoherence due to high levels of stress from daily routine living. Incoming stressors seem unending in modern-day life. Stress-filled lives have become the new norm due to high demands from work, family, the information deluge, and global uncertainty that we find ourselves in. Our bodies are designed to become super-charged for survival during a stressful event; however, the body does not differentiate between being chased by a tiger, a near-miss auto accident, a demanding boss, or unrelenting financial pressures. If stress is not somehow regulated, the sympathetic nervous overpowers the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a chaotic, incoherent heart rhythms. When in a state of stress, the heart’s rhythm is chaotic (left waveform in diagram), whereas in a state of calm and ease, the heart produces  a coherent sine wave pattern (right waveform in diagram).
Most disease states are caused by prolonged psycho–physical stress and will be accompanied by low HRV and low heart coherence.

A little history

Clinical use of HRV monitoring began in 1965 with fetal monitoring to assess fetal distress and risk of death. HRV frequency domain analysis derived from the ECG was first used in the 1970s to assess risk of death from heart disease. Today, HRV is used to determine ANS health and vagal tonality, a clear indicator of cardiac health and many other causes of morbidity. HRV feedback has far wider applications than just heart disease. Most disease states are caused by prolonged psycho–physical stress and will be accompanied by low HRV and low heart coherence. A couple key milestones in the use of HRV includes:
1960-70’S: Lacey, heart communicates with brain & effects human emotions
1974: Gahery & Vigier research the vagus nerve (X Cranial Nerve)
1991: Dr. J. Andrew Armour induces concept of “ Heart-Brain”

Information into Action

The HeartMath® model uses techniques involving breath, heart focus, and invoking positive emotional states. The practitioner uses a simple sensor, which clips onto the ear and gathers heart rate data. HeartMath® uses an algorithm to calculate HRV and displays it in various ways including graph or picture. You simply use your breath and emotional state to shift from red to green. With practice, you eventually find the internal “switch” that shifts you into a state of heart coherence.

Breathing + Mindfulness = Heart Coherence

The state of heart coherence is healing, in part because the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hormonal system are working in harmony. Stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) yield to healing ones, such as DHEA. The ANS works in harmony where the sympathetic (fight or flight) does not over power the parasympathetic (rest and digest).
HeartMath® is one approach to achieving heart coherence, however the concept has been around for millennia.

7 thoughts on “HeartMath®: A Dynamic Window into the Autonomic Nervous System”

  1. This is very interesting. I am always fretting that I stress too much and that I am doing my body, specifically my heart, damage by being stressed. So I try to take a deep breath and not to worry so much as it can’t really change anything anyway. I like the idea of heart coherence. Sounds like HeartMath might be for me!

    • I appreciate your comment. Breathing is the first line of defense to stress, especially yogic breathing. In addition to being a HeartMath® coach, I am adding 11-Minute Meds to the web site, so please check back1

  2. I learned about HeartMath about eight years ago. At the time, I was trying to find a way to manage my PTSD without medication. The VA had me on a boatload of meds that kept me numb and lethargic.

    Through HeartMath, I learned a simple breathing method of breathing out longer than breathing in. This method would calm me within a minute or two and take the edge off of my anxiety and hyper-vigilance.

    This small technique gave me an opening to sanity which I was able to expand over time to get off all the meds.

    A visit to the HeartMath website is a reminder of the power of the human heart and how truly connected we all are.

    • The HeartMath® tools have been a blessing for many, and I’m so glad that you found HM and learned the simple techniques to well being and self mastery. Anne

  3. I have just finish and article today on how to relieve stress and it is so amazing here am reading your post, I believe that we should try to live a stress free life as much as possible because having a life full of stress only affects the body in a negative way by breaking it down and it stead of buying medicine that has side it effects it is good to go the natural way. this thing call stress can be taken under control, but it is up to us to do what we can, even if that means going the natural way.

    • Thank you for your insights into how to live a healthier lifestyle without medication (if possible). I would love to read your article as well. My website is shifting to 11-MinuteMeds.com with the goal of giving people easy to do meditations to move into a coherent state, and optionally use HeartMath.

    • Thank you for taking a moment to comment.There are so many options for naturally building resilience and reducing stress. It’s up to an individual to consult with their health professional, however it is a fact that over 60% of office visits are related to stress. This topic is important to share and I would enjoy reading your article as well.


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