Important findings in recent years have deepened our understanding of resilience—the ability to recover quickly from difficult situations—and how important it is for human health. One of the leading organizations in this research is the HeartMath Institute (HMI). Devotees of Rewire Me are well acquainted with HMI. Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., its Director of Research, has been with IHM since its inception in 1991 and helped formulate many of its research goals. He recently conducted a webinar entitled “Perspectives on Resilience in These Changing Times,” drawing on 18 years of IHM research as well as other investigations on how resilience is developed, maintained, depleted, and restored.
A key point of the presentation was that resilience is not just something that appears when we’re under fire; we can actually store it, like a reserve force ready to spring into action when we’re under attack by stressors. “The skilled use of resilience is not just to bounce back and recoup after challenging situations,” noted Dr. McCraty. Having it in reserve, he went to on to say, is vital for preventing stress accumulation when we’re in the pressure cooker.
Another eye opener for me was that resilience also heightens our awareness of negative states that may be building within us. This awareness helps us be more conscious of shifts that can lead to intense states of anger or frustration, or feelings of helplessness.
Making sure we have enough resilience requires that we maintain our reserves in four energy domains—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and keep them in the right balance. Having this balance allows us to keep our cool in the face of stress and prevent a buildup that can lead to burnout or worse, including a host of physical problems. Dr. McCraty identified these energy domains as follows:
- Physical: flexibility, endurance, strength
- Emotional: emotional range and flexibility, positive feelings, self-regulation, relationships
- Mental: attention span, mental flexibility, optimistic world view, incorporating multiple points of view
- Spiritual: commitment to core values, flexibility, tolerance of others’ values and beliefs, intuition
According to Dr. McCraty, we often don’t pay enough attention to restoring depleted resilience. “We tend to think of the recovery process as a passive process, but it isn’t,” he pointed out. Restoring energy in the emotional domain is especially important, because its depletion can affect all the major systems of the body. Energy-sapping negative emotions such as fear, frustration, impatience, and anger can keep our resilience baseline at a very low level, and impact can be swift. “Just being angry for five minutes suppressed the main chemicals or functions in our immune system for the following six hours,” Dr. McCraty noted, referring to findings in an IHM study. When these negative emotional states persist, they can compromise our bodies in a multitude of ways—from impairing memory and mental function to reducing muscle mass. They can even make us age faster.
The problem is, we tend to make negative situations worse by internalizing them. We overreact when we perceive something negative, become preoccupied with it, and think we are powerless to do anything about it. Research also shows that our emotional energy is drained even by reactions that are justified. A good example: yelling at someone who cuts you off in traffic. While this outrage may be understandable, it still builds up your internal stress level and eats up your emotional energy.
To assess your stress level, take the IHM Stress & Well-Being Survey™.
The Key to Maintaining a Healthy Balance of Energy Domains: Coherence
Hallmarks of IHM’s research are its studies of coherence: an optimal state in which heart, mind, and emotions are operating in sync and balanced physiologically. Coherence helps keep our immune, hormonal, and nervous systems functioning in a state of energetic coordination. Being in a state of coherence also increases our mental and emotional flexibility and, as Dr. McCraty says, “your capacity to be in charge of yourself.” While achieving coherence requires training, the benefits are worth it; even short periods of coherence have a beneficial effect.
The star of the show in achieving coherence is the heart. HMI studies have shown us that the heart affects the brain in a multitude of ways, by continually sending signals to brain centers involved in strategic thinking, reaction times, and self-regulation. In fact, the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain does to the rest of the body.
Making sure these heart signals are working in a positive way depends on maintaining a consistent pattern of what is called heart rate variability (known as HRV). HRV doesn’t refer to pulse alone, but rather the pattern of fluctuations in our heartbeats over time. When our HRV is in a consistent, smooth pattern, we are in state of coherence that helps us respond to stressors effectively. When it is jagged and inconsistent, with unpredictable spikes, we are in an incoherent state that translates into heightened anxiety and compromised thought processes. Not surprisingly, HRV during negative emotional states tends to be erratic.
The good news is that we can learn to alter our HRV, and HMI shows us how. Its innovative emWave technology enables you to monitor your HRV, providing real-time feedback to help you move closer to a coherent state. Brief training sessions with an emWave that can be attached to a computer or mobile device can help provide coherence for a productive, healthy day, as well as calm a racing mind and disturbed emotions before bedtime to set the stage for a good night’s sleep. Coherence practice can also be useful before potentially stressful conversations, meetings, or presentations to help you harness creative energy, focus your thoughts, and maintain a stable emotional state.
HRV-regulating devices are being used more and more by athletes and students to improve reactions, coordination, memory, focus, and the ability to process information. IHM is currently working with the armed services to help soldiers regulate their emotions during a crisis, which could help reduce the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder.
While Dr. McCraty offered many tips in this program for improving HRV, here are three highlights:
- Say NO! to drama. Daily irritations can have the “iceberg effect”: the greatest emotional damage happens “out of sight” of the actual event, as we fixate on it. By consciously telling ourselves to let this go, this type of stress loses its drama and becomes less of a drain on our emotional reserves
- Replace negative emotions with positive ones. Pretend you’re breathing through the area of your heart with the intention of replacing the attitude or feeling that’s causing stress. Breathe in courage to replace fear, for example, or breathe in gratitude to replace regret. The breathing part is important, because it helps you calm down to a more neutral state. Try practicing this for a week or two and see what happens.
- Get regular physical exercise. We often forget that the value of physical exercise extends well beyond fitness of the body. It also helps us achieve a more stable emotional state and maintain our resilience reserves.
I really liked one term Dr. McCraty used to define resilience: buoyancy. It’s the ability to ride with the waves of a crisis without sinking. Following the advice in this webinar can help us stay afloat—and rise above—many types of adversity in our lives.
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