Heart Rhythm Biofeedback

Dr. Gordon N. S. Davidson, Registered Psychologist

Video on biofeedback

A powerful new computer based technology, called heart rhythm biofeedback, has given the old adage “take a deep breath” new meaning. Age old methods such as yoga teach deep breathing as a fundamental method to achieve well being. Often people take a deep breath spontaneously when stressed or angry. Taking a deep breath, along with counting to 10 is recommended by many. Along with the physiological benefits of deep breathing, this strategy allows individuals to counter the tendency to act impulsively.

Recent medical research has discovered an intimate relationship between the heart rate and breathing systems. While the heart at rest was once believed to be monotonously regular, we now know that the rhythm of a healthy heart reveals fascinating patterns. Under certain conditions heart rhythms and breathing patterns harmonize. This is called “coherence”, and is a state characterized by many physical and mental benefits, as will be seen below. This coherence is akin to two pendulum clocks gradually come to swing at the same rhythm.

During deep relaxed breathing or during the experience of positive emotions such as appreciation, it has been found that the heart adopts a more coherent rhythm and pulls other biological systems such as breathing, blood pressure and brain wave patterns into a similar pattern. Along with this increased synchronization between systems there is also more rhythmic patterns within each system. In this state, there is considerably more harmony in the nervous system, producing states of mental and physical well being.

When a person is stressed or angry, the heart rate is elevated and erratic and often produces hyperventilation or hypoventilation (shallow and suspended breath). By engaging in deep breathing the heart rate forms a smooth wave shape. The wave profile rises as the heart rate increases during inhalation, and declines during exhalation. During the inhale the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated and during exhalation the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation) is activated. The range from to the top of the arc to the bottom can be as great as 30 beats a minute (for example, 80 to 50 beats per minute). This is known as heart rate variability. Middle age adults usually can train themselves to achieve a range of 20 beats per minute, while in seniors the range often drops to a range of 5 beats per minute. Without training children often have a range of 40 beats per minute. Training in deep breathing and heart rhythm therefore may thus minimize the effects of aging in this area.

Normal breath rate is about 12 breaths per minutes but in a very relaxed state deep breathing can fall to one breath a minute or less. It has been found that one reason individuals find smoking relaxing is due in part to the deep breathing while inhaling. Smoking cessation programs teach people to deep breath to reduce the temptation to smoke.

Until recently it was believed that the brain sends more signals to the brain than vice versa. It has been found that the heart sends an enormous number of signals to the brain and these have profound effects on the way the brain functions. Disordered and irregular heart rhythms, generated by feelings of frustration and anxiety, inhibit ability of the brain to operate efficiently. We notice that when we are distressed (usually accompanied by an elevated heart rate) that our ability to think clearly declines. Positive emotions produce more ordered heart rhythms which facilitate higher brain function, including concentration and reasoning, as well as states of well being. This may explain why most people associate love and other positive feelings with the heart and why some people actually sense these emotions in the area of the heart.

Recent advancements in brain imaging technology have allowed researchers to see the effects of immediate and prolonged stress on the brain. They have also documented the profoundly positive effects on the brain of both short term and long term breath training and contemplative practices. In deep states of relaxation an area of the brain that has been associated with dramatically increased activity is that of the left frontal lobe. Activation of this area of the brain in particular has been associated with increased states of joy.

Heart and breathing patterns also affect the production of brain chemicals. During mental stress, the body is flooded with stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which increase anxiety and impair thinking ability. Exposure to chronic stress can cause loss of brain cells in the memory and emotional centers of the brain, and make these areas shrink in size. Relaxed deep breathing (and also deep breathing during aerobic exercise) reduces the level of these stress chemicals.

Heart rhythms are interconnected to the processing of emotional experiences into long term memory. Many emotional experiences, especially intense ones, become imprinted into long term memory in an area of the brain called the amygdala. One function of the amygdala is to compare incoming sensory information with information stored in the emotional memory banks and thereby determine the risk level in the moment. Memories can become activated by subsequent experiences that mirror the traumatic memories, sometimes in even minor ways. For instance, if someone sees another person that reminds him or her of a bad experience, the visual input can trigger the emotional memory. The amygdala activates the nervous system and emotional responses before the thinking centre of the brain (frontal cortex) process the information (and perhaps tell us that there is no immediate risk). Subsequently, the thinking centre attempts to understand the situation. Dr. Daniel Goleman, in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence, talks about how an “emotional high jacking” takes place when the amygdala bypasses the frontal cortex.

The amygdala also receives information directly from the heart. One of the functions of the amygdala is to organize what becomes familiar. If the rhythm patterns generated by the heart are typically disordered and incoherent due to situational stress, the amygdala learns to experience disharmony and emotional distress as familiar. If a child is exposed to frequent chaos in the environment, his or her nervous system can become strangely comfortable with internal and external distress, and this can extend into adulthood. This process may make sense of the research finding that some individuals with a history of trauma seem to be drawn to “more of the same” and at times make very bad life choices. By learning how to self-generate coherent heart rhythms and with consistent practice, it is believed emotional memory patterns can be reprogrammed so that coherence becomes the normal and comfortable state.

Heart rhythms also have been found to have interpersonal effects. Researchers have found that the heart transmits information via its pulsating electromagnetic field. The heart’s magnetic field is many times stronger than the field produced by the brain. While the brain’s electromagnetic field extends just a few inches from the brain, the heart’s field has been measured as far as ten feet away, and it likely extends much further. The heart pulses out a rhythmic pattern that reflects the emotions you are feeling, so your emotional state is being broadcast to the people around you. They are receiving your emotional state, and you are picking up the emotional states of others, whether you realize it or not. This means that you can be strongly affected by electromagnetic energies emanating from someone else’s heart. Stunningly, researchers have been able to measure one person’s heart rhythm pattern in the brain wave pattern of another person standing nearby.

New computer based heart rhythm biofeedback programs use the pulse from a sensor on the finger or ear lobe to track heart rate patterns in real time. Disrupted heart patterning has been found to be associated with a variety of medical problems including brain injury, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, diabetes and a variety of cardiac and stress conditions. High variability (20 beats per minutes vs. 5, for example) has been shown to be one of the best predictors of good cardiac health over time.

Regular use of heart rate biofeedback has resulted in significant benefits for people suffering from the conditions above, as well as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anger, depression, asthma, chronic fatigue, burnout, diabetes, digestive disorders, high blood pressure and sleep disorders. Most people find that the regular use of heart rhythm feedback can improve emotional well being and enhance mental clarity, learning and creativity. Enhanced immune system function and hormonal balance have been reported. Children often respond very well to heart rate feedback, and there are computer games which teach them to achieve coherence. Athletes of all kinds report learning how to generate the “zone” more easily and improve performance. Increased organizational effectiveness and reduced health costs have also been evidenced in workplaces where heart rate biofeedback has been introduced.

Heart rate training involves the individual learning to generate coherent heart rate patterns by seeing his or her rhythms in real time on the computer screen. The goal is to increase the amount of coherence in each session and keep track of your progress. After learning the techniques on the computer, the breathing strategies can be resourced at any time during your day. A hand held version of the program will be available this year. Emotional regulation and mental clarity can be enhanced significantly through the use of these methods.

Dr. Davidson has adapted heart rate feedback to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this condition, sufferers often re-traumatize themselves and rekindle the nervous system when having flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma. These individuals often have ongoing hyper-responsiveness to stimuli in the environment. With heart rate feedback treatment individuals can be trained to maintain coherence and become desensitized to the traumatic memories or environmental triggers.