No matter what part of the world you live in you are probably experiencing some stress over the state of our planet and our economies and our politics and the sense of divisiveness that seems to pervade so many parts of our world right now. Stress is so pervasive in our world today and it effects our emotions, our bodies and our relationships. Because of this and because I have had a profoundly positive experience around dealing with stress and the effects of it I’m going to take the time to share this with you in the hopes that some of you might find it a useful tool to add to your bag of tricks for dealing with the challenges of being human today.
By January of 2018 I had gone through 7 months of physical illness that had taken me to the emergency room in the middle of the night, many doctor visits and then to a specialist. I had had a CT scan and a multitude of other tests. I was frequently in pain and dealing with continual loss of weight and an inability to eat normally. I even went to see a therapist. I was a mess. By New Years I had come to the realization that I was not going to get help from the medical community. All they offered were more tests and drugs I had determined would not be good for my struggling body. I really got that I was on my own and was going to have to figure it out for myself.
Then I heard about a simple technique developed by the HeartMath Institute called the Coherence Technique. I have been familiar with the Institute and it’s work for many years, so I thought I would give it a try, since it was so simple to do. I had no expectations for it as far as my physical condition went. It wasn’t put out as a healing technique. But I thought it might help with my general stress. At that point I was looking for anything that might help, so I threw myself into doing it a few times a day, and anytime I awakened in the middle of the night in pain or despair – just to calm myself down. And it worked! After about a week I could feel that something in me was beginning to heal, and within a month or so I was able to eat more normally and was beginning to gain back the weight I had lost. My whole being was coming back into balance again. All with the help of an incredibly simple technique which I took to calling the “Smiling Heart Breath”! The basic instructions are simple:
1. Focus your attention on your heart (putting a couple fingers or your whole hand on your heart can help with focusing)
2. Slow and deepen your breathing – imagining your breath going in and out of the heart area.
3. Conjure up a feeling of appreciation or gratitude – or some positive, loving feeling, perhaps by thinking of a beloved pet or a place in nature you especially love.
The last part is really critically important to making this work (which I will talk more about in a bit). However, sometimes, waking in the middle of the night in pain, or in such a hard place mentally, I found it nearly impossible to pull up any positive feelings. When this happened once, I remembered reading that the brain can’t tell the difference between a “fake” smile and a real one and that smiling has a really positive effect on the body, so I tried it. And found that it worked like a charm! In fact, I find it so effective now that I often don’t bother coming up with a positive feeling – I just breath and smile! I did a search on the subject recently and here are a few quotes from material I found that support why this worked so well:
“When a smile flashes across your face; dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released into your bloodstream, making not only your body relax but also work to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Endorphins are natural painkillers – 100% naturally produced by your own body, without the negative effects of medication .”
“Faking a smile or laugh works as well as the real thing—the brain doesn’t differentiate between real or fake as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way. This is known as the facial feedback hypothesis. The more we stimulate our brain to release this chemical the more often we feel happier and relaxed. “
“Smiling can trick your brain into happiness — and boost your health. A smile spurs a powerful chemical reaction in the brain that can make you feel happier. … Science has shown that the mere act of smiling can lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system and possibly even prolong your life.”
In the midst of another line of research I was doing recently I came across information on the Vagus Nerve, something you may already know about. I feel a bit of a dunce, because, although I knew it was important somehow, I really didn’t know anything about it. The information I found made me realize that it was possible that the effects that the “Smiling Heart Breath” had on me may have been due to it’s stimulation of the vagus nerve which runs from the lower gut to the heart and on to the brain. It is activated naturally by positive feelings and most profoundly by deep breathing! And so without knowing it I was activating this super important part of our anatomy, and it was helping to heal me.
That summer I bought a small biofeedback device called an emWave 2 which is meant to help you train yourself to do the Heart Breath (Coherence Technique) well. I found it really challenging to use and it got stuck in a drawer until the next summer. A situation with a friend reminded me of biofeedback (which I used many years ago) and that made me remember this device. I pulled it out and plugged it into my computer and went through the same frustration with using it as I had the first time – but this time I determined to push through it. And did. You work with a computer program and the device registers your coherence levels in several ways. You are attached to the device by a clip attached to your ear lobe that then measures your heart rate variability (HRV).
One part of the training system is a simple graph with 3 colored bars. Filling all three bars with green shows that you have reached a high level of heart/brain coherence – that’s the goal. I had a very challenging time doing this at first. Try as I would I could not get past about half “full” on the last green bar. Then I realized I was focusing mostly on my breathing and its rhythm and hardly at all on the third step – the “positive feeling” part. And so I visualized myself sitting by my pond in the middle of summer ( see picture at the top – :-). And the green bar filled right up! Bam!
I had not truly understood how critical this piece is to the whole process and to us getting ourselves into a peaceful coherent state. Seeing it register on the computer program was truly surreal and hard to describe. Most of us don’t think of “feelings” as being something that is measurable. I knew intellectually that our emotions effect our bodies – but this was a sort of visceral connection with the reality of that.
I could see that relaxing my body and breathing deeply got me just so far and of course was a good thing – but adding in the positive thought piece was profound! And I found that my smiling technique worked too.
Science is just beginning to understand the broad range of ailments caused by stress. Just imagine if we were all taught simple techniques like these as children. Kids are learning mindfulness in school. How cool would it be to teach them this simple and profoundly effective technique. You can do it anywhere, anytime and it has no negative side-effects. You don’t need the emWave or any expensive gadget to do it (they just help you hone your skills). And even if you don’t get it down perfectly it can help you get control of your stress. How cool is that.
Here is a video of a nurse walking you through it:
Have a peaceful coherent year!