How much time do you devote each day to tuning into your heart?
The very idea of getting in touch with an internal organ like your heart might seem a bit obscure, odd or just plain ‘out there’. But new research has shown that people with cancer who have high levels of heart rate variability (HRV) have better survival than people with lower levels of HRV. Tuning into your heart for part of each day may be the tonic you need.
Here’s how it works.
HRV describes the natural oscillations in timing between consecutive heart beats. Changes in HRV examined under various conditions such as when asleep, awake, during exercise, or in various disease states are an indication of the efficiency of the autonomic nervous system. Higher HRV levels are correlated to positive indications of health, whereas lower HRV is a negative indicator of health status.
The good news is that anyone can take 3 simple steps to improve their HRV and health. But first, let’s take a closer look at the research…
High-frequency HRV predicts improved survival in cancer
Janine Giese-Davis and colleagues from the Division of Psychosocial Oncology at the University of Calgary recruited 87 subjects with metastatic or recurrent breast cancer . Each subject participated in a social stress task during which the investigators collected 5 minutes of HRV data while the subject was resting in an upright seated position.
Higher resting levels of high-frequency (HF) HRV significantly predicted longer survival. At a median of 37 months after HRV was measured, 65% of subjects with higher levels of HF HRV were still alive compared with 50% of women with lower HF HRV. The positive association of HF HRV with survival was maintained in a separate analysis that included only women with metastatic disease.
This finding suggests that the autonomic nervous system and HRV may play a vital role in the progression of cancer. This is an important finding because HRV, including HF HRV measured in the Giese-Davis study, can be altered using a simple behavioral intervention aimed at improving emotions.
Positive emotions improve high-frequency HRV
Studies have shown that a positive emotion like appreciation produces a shift from low-frequency (LF) HRV toward mid-frequency and HF HRV spectrum independently of heart rate and respiration [2, 3]. Conversely, anger produces an HRV spectrum in the LF range. These findings indicate that emotional expression determines the state of balance of the autonomic nervous system, with positive emotions leading to alterations in HRV that may benefit long-term health outcomes, such as survival in cancer.
Fortunately, it’s a simple matter to invoke the positive feeling states that support a shift to HF HRV. One technique is called the Heart Lock-In and consists of 3 simple steps: heart awareness, heart breathing and heart appreciation. The technique is designed to eliminate negative ‘thought loops’ and promote sustained positive emotional states.
In a study of 45 healthy adults, an experimental group of 30 adults who received training in the Heart Lock-In technique experienced improvements in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions of guilt, hostility, burnout, anxiety and stress . A control group of 15 adults had no changes in either positive or negative emotions.
In addition, patients who received the Heart Lock-In training had a mean 23% decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol, and a 100% increase in the ‘feel alive’ hormone, DHEA. Moreover, these improvements were associated with increased levels of HF HRV.
Performing the Heart Lock-In technique
1). Gently shift your attention to the area around your heart
2). Shift to a deeper, slower breath; imagine you are breathing in through the heart and out through the solar plexus
3). Activate a genuine feeling of appreciation or care for someone or something in your life; make a sincere effort to sustain this feeling while directing it to yourself and others
When you catch your mind wandering, gently focus your breathing back through the heart and solar plexus, and reconnect with feelings of care or appreciation. A Heart Lock-In session need only take 5 minutes each day to receive health benefits. After you’ve finished each session, sincerely sustain your feelings of care and appreciation as long as you can. Over time, this simple act will cushion against recurring negative emotions, such as anxiety or stress.
Although it’s not essential, you might like to purchase a biofeedback monitor that lets you know when your heart is locked in to its optimal state.
The Heart Lock-In is but one simple intervention that anyone with cancer or other serious illness can readily implement into their daily routine to positively impact their own body’s healing. In MindBody, the things we feel, think and do are all inter-related, and all require our attention. Unfortunately, many people have come to expect that our healing is not over to us, but rather is dependent on following medical advice, receiving quality care, and hoping for the best. In other words, the things that get done to us (for us) are seen as more important. But the reality is so different: it’s the things you feel, think and do for yourself that help to invoke the natural tendency of your bodymind to heal itself.
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1. Giese-Davis J, Wilhelm FH, Tamagawa R, et al. Higher vagal activity as related to survival in patients with advanced breast cancer: an analysis of autonomic dysregulation. Psychosom Med. 2015;77:346–355.
2. McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G, Watkins AD. The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability. Am J Cardiol. 1995;76:1089–1093.
3. Tiller WA, McCraty R, Atkinson M. Cardiac coherence: a new, noninvasive measure of autonomic nervous system order. Altern Ther Health Med. 1996;2:52–65.
4. McCraty R, Barrios-Choplin B, Rozman D, Atkinson M, Watkins AD. The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integr Physiol Behav Sci. 1998;33:151–170.