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Emotional Stress, Positive Emotions, and Psychophysiological Coherence

Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and Dana Tomasino

Chapter published in: Stress in Health and Disease, edited by B. B. Arnetz and R. Ekman. Weinheim, Germany, Wiley-VCH, 2006: 342-365.

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In this chapter, we describe two core tools of the HeartMath system, the Freeze-Frame and Heart Lock-In techniques, and then explore the scientific basis of their effectiveness. This discussion is built upon a conceptual framework that emphasizes the emotional component of the experience of stress and the proposition that truly transforming stress requires intervention at the emotional level. To understand how stress is generated and processed in the brain and body, we present a model of emotion, based on Pribram’s theory, in which the brain functions as a complex pattern-matching system. From this perspective, it is shown that the heart is a key component of the emotional system, with the patterns of its extensive inputs to the brain making an important contribution to emotional experience. We also provide an overview of the Institute of HeartMath’s research on the physiological correlates of positive emotions, which has led to the characterization of a distinctive mode of psychophysiological functioning known as psychophysiological coherence. Through the use of tools and technologies that foster positive emotions and psychophysiological coherence, individuals can effectively initiate a repatterning process, whereby habitual emotional patterns underlying stress are replaced with new, healthier patterns that establish increased emotional stability, mental acuity, and physiological efficiency as a new familiar baseline or norm.