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Can Stress Be Reduced By Using Heart Coherence?

Jolant van den Haspel

Master Thesis, Faculty of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Experimental and Work Psychology, University of Groningen, Netherlands, 2009. Thesis in Dutch.


In this study the human being is presented as a dynamic system, that functions in continuously changing circumstances, aiming at balance. Self-regulating capacities can keep the human being in balance within the boundaries of the state of equilibrium, however when new or 'threatening' circumstances have disturbed this situation, new adaptation strategies have to be developed and executed to find a new balance. This state of imbalance is called 'stress' and occurs on low (cellular) as well as high functional levels (behavior).

Stress on a higher functional level can be observed by the brain and results almost directly in the activation of the physiological system to support the development and implementation of adaptation processes. This physiological support is called 'arousal' and has specific characteristics on the levels of hormones, autonomic nervous system, brainwaves and in mutual synchronization of the physiological rhythms. Stress can lead to adaptation processes, in which the tuning between the involved parts will end up in a new state of balance (approach), but it can also result in a chaotic process, moving further from balance (avoidance). The popular name 'stress' (lack of balance during longer time) is related to the avoidance state and reduction of this 'stress' can be reached by a change of state in the direction of 'approach'.

The approach- or avoidance state influences physiological, physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral domains. Because of interconnection between these domains, the change of state can start within all these separate domains. In the physiological domain this can be done by increasing the mutual synchronization between important physiological systems. These systems, including the cardiovascular system of the heart and blood circulation, show in balance a 10 second rhythm. Because of the direct influence of the respiration on the heart-rate, a respiration cycle of about 10 seconds can increase the synchronization in a more balanced direction (approach state) in heart rate. The increased regularity in the variability of the heart-rate is called 'heart coherence' and is related to the state of approach.

In this study a training is given to use heart coherence, that is increased by respiration in a 10 second rhythm, to reduce stress. The study aims at investigating the effect of this form of stress reduction in the field of physiological rhythms, the autonomic nervous system, the brainwaves and the physical, emotional and cognitive aspects of stress.

Fourteen continuously stressed mothers of ADHD-, PDD-NOS-, autistic and other restless children took part in the research. All mothers participated in a practical session with the biofeedback method 'Freeze Framer1' of the Institute of HeartMath to increase their heart coherence with the respiration method in a 10 second rhythm. Adjacent to this practical session the experimental group got 4 training sessions with explanation about stress processes and awareness of the possibilities and motivation to implement heart coherence in stressful situations at home. The mothers have been asked to practice the respiration method during five times a day for half a minute to automatize the process.

The results of the practice show that all the mothers can double their heart coherence with the respiration method and the biofeedback within half an hour. This effect is not maintained over a period of two weeks without training. After the training with homework, however the effect has indeed been maintained over a period of two weeks. Not only the increased heart coherence, but also a significant improvement of other variables in the physiological, physical, emotional and cognitive domains, prove that the training can lead to stress reduction. A potential indirect effect of the more approach directed state of the mothers is noticed in the situation at home, where the amount of tempers of the restless children have been decreased. Two months after the last training the mothers can still use heart coherence in a stressful situation according to a follow-up questionnaire. This research shows that a short period (2 weeks) with little training (4 session of half an hour) and a small amount of homework (5 times a day during half a minute) is sufficient to change the physiological avoidance-state of stress in the direction of 'approach' with positive consequences for the physical, emotional and cognitive 'overall' levels of stress. The question 'can stress be reduced with implementation of heart coherence by mothers of restless kids?', can be answered by 'yes'. Future research may give the answer to the question whether this is also possible for people, that ended up in a long lasting stressful! situation for other reasons.