What is the science behind a heart-based way of life?
The heart-based approach to life is based on three foundational practices, which are grounded in a large body of scientific evidence:
- Mindfulness training has been shown to lead to measurable changes to the physical structure of the brain
- Studies show mindfulness increases happiness and emotional regulation while it reduces depression and anxiety
- Mindfulness has been shown to improve physical health including increasing immunity, improving sleep quality and reducing back pain
- Our emotional state as a tangible impact on the function of our heart measurable via heart rate variability
- Scientific research has shown that regulating breathing and generating positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state called ‘psychophysiological coherence’
- Individuals with higher Heart Rate Variability have been found to be more empathic and to express their emotions better and to experience less emotional exhaustion
- Studies have found that lacking social connection is more detrimental to your health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure
- When people listen to each other, share kind words, and help each other out — what social scientists call ‘prosocial behaviours’ — their happiness increases
- Scientific studies have found that ‘perspective-taking’ increases feelings of connection and fosters the empathy that builds meaningful bonds
Mindfulness has been practised for thousands of years, primarily in the East, it involves training ourselves to bring a non-judgmental awareness to the present moment. Since Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered the use of mindfulness in a non-Buddhist setting in the 1970s a wide body of scientific evidence has been accumulated showing its impact on physical and psychological health.
How does mindfulness improve emotional regulation?
Research into how mindfulness changes brain activity has shown consistent effects on a key set of brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala, and hippocampus.Gotink, R. A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M. W., Smits, M., & Hunink, M. M. (2016). 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice–a systematic review. Brain and cognition, 108, 32-41.
Brain activity in the amygdala, part of the emotion-regulating limbic system in the brain, is decreased by regular mindfulness practice. This indicates a calming effect on our emotions that reduces activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Our brain and ANS switch out of ‘fight or flight’ mode, back to a restful, restorative state.
Mindfulness practice also strengthens the connection between the PFC and amygdala, which allows the PFC to dampen ‘fight or flight’ responses in the amygdala more effectively.
Conversely, activity in the PFC and hippocampus increase with regular mindfulness practice. The PFC is the brain’s ‘executive centre’ and has strong connections to regions in the limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus. It gives us the potential to re-evaluate emotionally-charged situations and calm our emotions with a clear view of the situation. The hippocampus may cooperate with the PFC, helping to re-contextualise what happens to us in a more beneficial way.
How can mindfulness be used to retrain our brains?
The capacity of the brain to rewire itself, to expand or shrink different brain regions, or even to grow new brain cells (neurons) is known as ‘neuroplasticity’.
Neuroplasticity does not happen at random — the changes that are happening to our brains are a result of our day-to-day experiences. This means that what we choose to do and how we choose to behave have a direct influence on the physical structure of our brains.
You can think of your brain as being a bit like a muscle — the more you train it, the more it grows. Of course, there are so many different ways you can train your brain. You can train it to learn how to navigate a cityWoollett, K., & Maguire, E. A. (2011). Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London’s layout drives structural brain changes. Current biology, 21(24), 2109-2114., how to juggleScholz, J., Klein, M. C., Behrens, T. E., & Johansen-Berg, H. (2009). Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature neuroscience, 12(11), 1370., or how to be mindfulLazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … & Rauch, S. L. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893.. For each of these examples, scientific studies have in fact shown measurable changes to the physical structure of the brain.
At the cellular level of the brain, neurons communicate with each other in complex networks by ‘firing’ signals through electrical and chemical connections. When neurons that share a connection fire at the same time, their connection becomes stronger — “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This is known as Hebb’s rule, after the neuroscientist Donald Hebb, who discovered it. So as we continue practice mindfulness we are literally re-wiring the neural pathways of our brain in ways which increase our wellbeing.
How mindfulness enhances mental and physical health
Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness practices have a wide range of positive effects on mental health, including the potential tosee: https://emmaseppala.com/benefits-breathing-scientific-benefits-breathing-infographic/:
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Decrease stress and regulate cortisol levels
- Increase happiness and optimism
- Improve sleep
- Improve emotional regulation
- Reduce impulsivity, cravings & addictions
- Improve immune function Davidson, R., et al. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570
- Reduce lower back-ache Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain – A Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA. Published online March 22 2016
Regulating the activity of the heart
The heart is a complex organ, whose activity is regulated by three interacting systems:
- Autonomic nervous system (ANS) — carrying messages from the brain to speed up and slow down the heart rate.
- Hormonal system — chemical signals in the bloodstream that influence heart activity, such as adrenaline, which signals stress and increases heart rate.
- Intracardiac nervous system (ICNS) —the heart’s own “mini-brain” that monitors the activity of the heart and allows it to respond effectively to the demands of our body, emotions, and environmentCampos, I. D., Pinto, V., Sousa, N., & Pereira, V. H. (2018). A brain within the heart: A review on the intracardiac nervous system. Journal of molecular and cellular cardiology, 119, 1-9.. In total, it contains about 40,000 neurons in an adult.
Our heart rate is determined by the interactions between the ICNS, ANS, and the hormonal system. The activity of the heart at any time therefore sensitively reflects and responds to our mental and physical state.
What is heart rate variability?
Often we hear about measuring heart rate in beats per minute, but another important measure is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the degree of variability in the beat-to-beat timing of the heart.Draghici, A. E., & Taylor, J. A. (2016). The physiological basis and measurement of heart rate variability in humans. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 35(1), 22.Scientists and physicians consider HRV to be an important indicator of health and fitness. As a marker of physiological resilience and behavioural flexibility, it reflects our ability to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands.
Heart rate variability (HRV) can be seen as a dynamic window into the function and balance of the ANS. Our heart is not a metronome or ticking clock; its rhythm naturally ebbs and flows. Our HRV is healthy when there is timing difference between heartbeats — in other words, variability in the heart rate.Ernst, G. (2017). Heart-Rate variability—More than Heart Beats? Frontiers in public health, 5, 24
A greater difference in the timing between each heartbeat (high HRV) indicates that the parasympathetic branch of the ANS is in charge and that our nervous system is in a balanced, calm, and restful state.
What is heart coherence?
Scientific research has shown that regulating breathing and generating positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state called ‘psychophysiological coherence’, or ‘coherence’ for short.
Coherence is a specific state in which HRV is synchronised with other bodily rhythms — most notably the breathing (see diagram below). Several important changes occur during coherence. The two branches of the ANS synchronise with one another, and there is an overall shift towards increased parasympathetic activity, indicating that the ANS is in a resting state.
HRV coherence is a natural scientifically measurable state of increased balance in our ANS and harmony in both our psychological (mental) and physiological (bodily) processes.
Physiologically, the state of coherence is marked by the development of a smooth, sine-wave like pattern in the HRV trace. This characteristic pattern is the primary indicator of the psychophysiological coherence state.
How does HRV affect emotional regulation and expression?
Scientific studies have found that a higher HRV is linked to improved emotional regulation and expression, reflecting an improved ability to handle emotions in daily life and maintain mental and physical wellbeing. Individuals with high HRV are better able to reappraise emotionally-charged experiences so that they don’t trigger their ‘fight or flight’ responseThayer, J. F., Åhs, F., Fredrikson, M., Sollers III, J. J., & Wager, T. D. (2012). A meta-analysis of heart rate variability and neuroimaging studies: implications for heart rate variability as a marker of stress and health. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(2), 747-756. Steinfurth, E. C., Wendt, J., Geisler, F., Hamm, A. O., Thayer, J. F., & Koenig, J. (2018). Resting State Vagally-Mediated Heart Rate Variability Is Associated With Neural Activity During Explicit Emotion Regulation. Frontiers in neuroscience, 12, 794.. This allows them to let go of unnecessary worries, think more clearly, and behave less impulsivelyPark, G., & Thayer, J. F. (2014). From the heart to the mind: cardiac vagal tone modulates top-down and bottom-up visual perception and attention to emotional stimuli. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 278. Williams, D. P., Cash, C., Rankin, C., Bernardi, A., Koenig, J., & Thayer, J. F. (2015). Resting heart rate variability predicts self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation: a focus on different facets of emotion regulation. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 261. Visted, E., Sørensen, L., Osnes, B., Svendsen, J. L., Binder, P. E., & Schanche, E. (2017). The association between self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation and heart rate variability: the salient role of not accepting negative emotions. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 328.. In addition, individuals with high HRV have been found to be more empathic and to express their emotions wellLischke, A., Pahnke, R., Mau-Moeller, A., Behrens, M., Grabe, H. J., Freyberger, H. J., … & Weippert, M. (2018). Inter-individual differences in heart rate variability are associated with inter-individual differences in empathy and alexithymia. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 229..
In the brain, this ability to reappraise potential threats and respond more calmly is related to activity changes in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala, which are both involved in regulating emotion via the brain’s limbic system.
What brings us into coherence?
We use HRV and HRV coherence biofeedback technology from our partner organisation HeartMath UK. Numerous scientific studies have shown that HRV biofeedback is an effective method for reducing stress and anxietyGoessl, V. C., Curtiss, J. E., & Hofmann, S. G. (2017). The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: a meta-analysis. Psychological medicine, 47(15), 2578-2586.. This simple-to-use technology helps to guide us into a state of coherence.
Coherence also promotes homeostasis, the body’s natural way of keeping everything in balance and of maintaining resilience to challenge, stress and damage. You can think of coherence as the engine for resilience and of the coherence techniques as ways to boost your inner battery and keep your resilience engine running effectively.
Coherence can be learnt, practiced and developed, and the physical and mental benefits of this can be profound. Our ‘heart coherence’ practices combine breathing techniques with learning how to generate and maintain our innate heart-qualities (such as gratitude, inspiration, and love). These are all tried and tested techniques for raising HRV levels and generating HRV coherence.Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123-1132.
How HRV biofeedback technology improves mental health
Increased HRV is associated with reduced anxiety and stress, and can be beneficial in overcoming mental disorders:
- HRV biofeedback training leads to a “large reduction in self-reported stress and anxiety”Goessl, V. C., Curtiss, J. E., & Hofmann, S. G. (2017). The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: a meta-analysis. Psychological medicine, 47(15), 2578-2586..
- Higher HRV is associated with less of the repetitive negative thinking that intensifies stress and anxietyWilliams, D. P., Feeling, N. R., Hill, L. K., Spangler, D. P., Koenig, J., & Thayer, J. F. (2017). Resting heart rate variability, facets of rumination and trait anxiety: implications for the perseverative cognition hypothesis. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 520.
- Individuals with higher HRV experience less emotional exhaustion that can lead burnout and depressionKanthak, M. K., Stalder, T., Hill, L. K., Thayer, J. F., Penz, M., & Kirschbaum, C. (2017). Autonomic dysregulation in burnout and depression: evidence for the central role of exhaustion. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 43(5), 475-484.
- HRV biofeedback training combined with psychotherapy is more effective at treating depression than psychotherapy aloneCaldwell, Y. T., & Steffen, P. R. (2018). Adding HRV biofeedback to psychotherapy increases heart rate variability and improves the treatment of major depressive disorder. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 131, 96-101.
- Psychotherapy and HRV biofeedback training in combination are effective at treating post-traumatic stress disorderCriswell, S. R., Sherman, R., & Krippner, S. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for Adults with Persistent Noncombat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The Permanente journal, 22.
Human connection is crucial to well-being
Humans are inherently social animals, with a need to be heard and to listen to others. The importance of human connection to health and wellbeing is well-established scientifically. In fact, meaningful relationships are so crucial to health and happiness that studies have found that lacking social connection is more detrimental to your health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressureHouse, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540-545.!
When people listen to each other, share kind words, and help each other out — what social scientists call ‘prosocial behaviours’ — their happiness increasesSeppala, E., Rossomando, T., & Doty, J. R. (2013). Social connection and compassion: Important predictors of health and well-being. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 80(2), 411-430.. The art of listening to others and being able to take their perspective seems to be especially important — scientific studies have found that ‘perspective-taking’ increases feelings of connection and fosters the empathy that builds meaningful bonds. Sharing what is going on for us with others actually helps us to regulate our emotions by opening us to receive help and support from those around us.
Science Focus: Benefits of social connection
Scientific studies have shown tangible physical and mental benefits of maintaining good social connectionssee: http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/connectedness-health-the-science-of-social-connection-infographic/:
- Stronger immune system
- Lower rate of anxiety and depression
- Faster recovery from disease
- Higher self-esteem and empathy
- Better emotional regulation
How can mindfulness improve social connection?
Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on in our body and mind during all our daily activities. This has the potential to apply as much to our social life as much as it does to any other part of our life.
Social science researchers have identified several key ways in which mindfulness helps to improve relationshipsKarremans, J. C., Schellekens, M. P., & Kappen, G. (2017). Bridging the sciences of mindfulness and romantic relationships: A theoretical model and research agenda. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 29-49., by improving people’s ability to:
- Be aware of automatic responses to another person’s behaviour and words
- Regulate their emotions better
- Choose to act in a way that responds more appropriately to the person in front of them
- Feel closer and more connected to others, recognising that emotions are common to all of us
Mindfulness helps us to regulate our emotions and communicate more effectively in social situations. Regular mindfulness practice decreases the activity in the amygdala, a key brain region involved in generating our ‘fight or flight’ stress responseGoldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.. When this response calms down, we are less troubled my negative emotions and thoughts. We can respond more attentively to the person we are with, helping us both to feel more connectedQuaglia, J. T., Goodman, R. J., & Brown, K. W. (2015). From mindful attention to social connection: The key role of emotion regulation. Cognition and Emotion, 29(8), 1466-1474. Quaglia, J. T., Zeidan, F., Grossenbacher, P. G., Freeman, S. P., Braun, S. E., Martelli, A., … & Brown, K. W. (2019). Brief mindfulness training enhances cognitive control in socioemotional contexts: Behavioral and neural evidence. PloS one, 14(7), e0219862..
Interestingly, scientific research has confirmed that we need to be more than just aware in our relationships — we need to be open-hearted and accepting in our interactions to feel more connectedLindsay, E. K., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Smyth, J. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(9), 3488-3493.. When mindful awareness is combined with a ‘heartful’, welcoming attitude, feelings of loneliness decrease, and people start to engage in more social interactions.
Heart-based meditations, which deliberately cultivate this kind, welcoming attitude, have been shown to increase positive emotions and feelings of social connectionKok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123-1132.. They also enhance feelings of empathy and compassionHutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The neural correlates of social connection. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(1), 1-14. Boellinghaus, I., Jones, F. W., & Hutton, J. (2014). The role of mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation in cultivating self-compassion and other-focused concern in health care professionals. Mindfulness, 5(2), 129-138., and make us less likely to judge those we perceive as different from usKang, Y., Gray, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). The nondiscriminating heart: Lovingkindness meditation training decreases implicit intergroup bias. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1306..
How can healthy heart activity foster healthy relationships?
The activity of the heart can be influenced not just by our own bodily and mental state, but also by the people we are with and how we engage with them socially. Scientists measuring heart rate in cooperating groups, such as surgical teams, have made the surprising discovery that their heartbeats tend to synchronise with one anotherHemakom, A., Powezka, K., Goverdovsky, V., Jaffer, U., & Mandic, D. P. (2017). Quantifying team cooperation through intrinsic multi-scale measures: respiratory and cardiac synchronization in choir singers and surgical teams. Royal Society open science, 4(12), 170853.. This suggests that the rhythmical activity of the heart can respond to social cues.
Heart rate variability (HRV), the beat-to-beat difference in the timing of heartbeats, is a key heart-based, physiological measure of a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. A higher HRV is associated with a range of beneficial effects on psychological and physiological processes related to improved social connection, health and wellbeingKemp, A. H., Arias, J. A., & Fisher, Z. (2017). Social ties, health and wellbeing: a literature review and model. In Neuroscience and Social Science (pp. 397-427). Springer, Cham..
When a person is experiencing positive emotions, such as kindness, empathy, and compassion, their HRV increasesKok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123-1132.. People with high HRV also report greater feelings of being safe and contentDuarte, J., & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2017). Positive affect and parasympathetic activity: Evidence for a quadratic relationship between feeling safe and content and heart rate variability. Psychiatry research, 257, 284-289.. These positive emotions form the foundation of better relationships with others by helping us to listen and respond more empathically.
Importantly, we can train ourselves to experience more of these positive emotions. Studies have found that the cultivation of heart-based qualities, such as compassion and feeling socially connected, is mirrored by an increase in HRVKok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123-1132. Kirby, J. N., Doty, J. R., Petrocchi, N., & Gilbert, P. (2017). The current and future role of heart rate variability for assessing and training compassion. Frontiers in public health, 5, 40.. As well as these positive emotions increasing our HRV, when we increase our HRV, we boost our positive emotions. This feedback loop between cultivating positive emotions and increased HRV can support an “upward spiral” leading to greater physical and mental wellbeingKok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123-1132..