Heart Coherence and Biofeedback Meditation

Heart Coherence and Biofeedback Meditation – the Complete Guide

Dr. Patti Shelton, MD

Biofeedback meditation | HRV basics | HRV benefits | HRV vs. coherence | Coherence benefits | How to get in coherence | HeartMath | References

How technology helps people who can’t meditate enjoy its benefits

In our last article, we talked about the benefits of meditation for longevity. If you’re looking to live a long and healthy life and protect your brain as you age, then meditation is an excellent evidence-based tool to consider.

But what can you do if you struggle with or simply can’t meditate?

In my years as a meditation teacher, I’ve heard from so many people who struggle with meditation. They sit down and try to clear their minds, only to find their minds racing. They find themselves doing things like going over their to-do lists in their heads and rehearsing what they really should have said that one time a few years ago. When it feels like they’ve been doing this for quite a while, they check the clock – and it’s only been two minutes. They just can’t imagine how they could sit there for 15 or 20 minutes every day.

If this sounds like you, then I can definitely assure you that you are not alone. And, you don’t have to give up on meditation just yet. First, meditation is not one-size-fits-all. So, you might benefit from trying different meditation techniques to find one that works best for you.  Additionally, thanks to cutting-edge science, you can now use biofeedback technology that can help you learn to meditate.

What is biofeedback meditation?

Biofeedback technology monitors certain aspects of your physiology and shows you what’s happening inside your body at any given moment. With this information, you can gain insights into your physical, mental and emotional state. With this capability, you can then train your nervous system to enter particular states at will.

There are a few different ways that biofeedback could potentially be used for learning to meditate. Monitoring your brainwaves with EEG (electroencephalography) would be one way, but this is not particularly convenient. A simpler way is to monitor certain aspects of your heart rate with a sensor or a device. Because your heart’s rhythm is closely linked with the overall state of your nervous system, which meditation affects, this method can help train your body to get into a meditative state.

When used along with a basic meditation technique, biofeedback sensors and devices can make a huge difference for many people. In fact, this could be the key that unlocks the health and longevity-promoting benefits of meditation for you.

Is my heart rhythm healthy? Understanding the basics of heart rate variability

If you’re the type of person who enjoys measuring their health with technology, then you may already check your heart rate regularly. Having a low resting heart rate is associated with longevity[1], which is why many people measure their heart rate first thing every morning to see how it’s doing.

It’s not that this isn’t valuable. However, when you measure your heart rate, you’re checking your heart rhythm only at a very basic level. The heart rate number that you see on your smartwatch is average – it completely discounts the variation that occurs from beat to beat. It’s true that having a resting heart rate that’s low overall is associated with better heart health, but there’s more to it than that.

A healthy heart doesn’t usually beat in a regular, monotonous rhythm. Instead, there’s some variation in the space between beats. To quantify how much variation there is, we can use a measurement known as heart rate variability, or HRV. This is a mathematical measurement of how much the heart rate changes from one beat to the next.

The significance of these findings is that according to research, HRV can be used as a powerful marker of health and aging. Leveraging such measurement with biofeedback technology that can help us optimize our HRV may have a positive impact on our health and longevity.

Time to dive into some exciting science.

HRV as an indicator of stress

Multiple studies have shown a strong association between HRV and nervous system balance[2]. The sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system, speeds up the heart rate overall, but also reduces HRV. When you’re stressed and your sympathetic nervous system is dominant, your HRV generally goes down, with the intervals between beats becoming more regular. In fact, this connection is so profound that researchers have suggested that HRV can be used as a marker for stress[3].

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, which is active when you’re calm and relaxed, has the opposite effect on the heart. Not only does it cause the overall heart rate to go down, but it also causes HRV to increase.

With modern life’s many stressors, chronic stress is widely recognized as one of the biggest health problems of our time. Not to mention the connection between stress and aging. Managing stress is just as crucial as nutrients, movement, and other healthy habits. Optimizing our HRV levels with biofeedback meditation may offer a practical, safe and effective way.

HRV as a marker of aging and longevity

Here’s another reason why optimizing our HRV levels as we age matters:

According to research, HRV turns out to be a powerful predictor of longevity[4]. In fact, one large meta-analysis of more than 100 studies found that the risk of death from all causes was 121% higher in people with low HRV when compared to those with high HRV[5].

This study only shows correlation, not causation, so results like these always need to be interpreted with caution. Still, it’s definitely worth taking note of these findings, given that low HRV more than doubled the risk of death in the study.

Even more, a person’s average HRV has been shown to decrease with aging[6]. Multiple studies have associated higher average HRV with a lower risk of chronic diseases. As we mentioned, correlation doesn’t imply causation, and some experts have suggested that the connection is more complicated than it may seem[7]. We can safely say, however, that we have enough data to suggest that high HRV does seem to benefit our overall health. If your health and wellness goals include longevity, maintaining healthy HRV levels definitely seems like a valid, evidence-based option to consider.

How to monitor your HRV levels

There are several products you can use to monitor your HRV. Some include apps you download to your phone that work with your smartwatch heart rate monitoring function. Others come with a standalone sensor/device that measures HRV. These options are by far the most convenient way to monitor HRV, especially if you want to check it on a regular basis. Keep in mind – research has indicated that HRV needs to be measured for at least 3 minutes to get an accurate reading[8].

Doctors will sometimes order a measurement of 24-hour average HRV. This can be useful, particularly for heart disease patients, but it’s not something that most people are likely to do or even should do. Measuring 24-hour HRV requires you to wear a heart rate monitor for an entire day, which is not very comfortable. Additionally, such measurement can be affected by your activity level during the day. By contrast, when you use regular HRV devices or apps to measure HRV over a period of a few minutes while you’re sitting still, this won’t be an issue. Additionally, you can easily test your levels around different events in your life and see how they influence your HRV.

Heart coherence: the next level of HRV monitoring

Overall, we can say that monitoring your HRV, rather than just your average heart rate, is like moving to the next level of monitoring your heart’s rhythm. There’s, however, another level. HRV tells us how much overall variation there is in a person’s heart rate. It doesn’t say, however, anything about the pattern of that variation. To look at the pattern, we can use a measurement called heart coherence that is derived from HRV. This is an important distinction as research has suggested that heart coherence may offer additional benefits you may not get by targeting HRV alone.

Interestingly, studies have found that there’s a correlation between high heart coherence and a state of deep meditation. In fact, the researchers even suggested that coherence can be used as a general marker for the meditative state[9]. These are exciting news for anyone who may have struggled with meditation. You may still enjoy the many benefits meditation has to offer by optimizing your heart coherence.

So, what exactly happens in your body when you are in a state of heart coherence? It’s time to see heart coherence in action.

Heart coherence vs. HRV

The difference between HRV and Heart Coherence: Heart coherence is a specific pattern of heart rate variability. Research has suggested that high coherence is associated with a state of balance and synchronization between our physical, mental, and emotional systems. Monitoring and optimizing your heart coherence with biofeedback training may offer additional benefits that HRV monitoring alone doesn't provide.

To understand the concept of heart coherence, we can look at the above graph of a person’s heart rate over time.  In this graph, we’re plotting the heart rate for each individual heartbeat based on the time interval since the last heartbeat. This gives us a sense of the changes in heart rate over time.

High heart coherence

The blue graph shows a person in a state of high heart coherence. We see a smooth, sine-wave shaped graph. The length of time between heartbeats moves smoothly up and down. Generally, this waveform is synchronized with the breath. The link between the heart rate and the breathing cycle can be partly explained by pressure changes within the chest. As you breathe in, the pressure in your chest cavity goes down, and more blood is able to return to the heart as a result. Keep this in mind, as some of the methods that promote high heart coherence use breathing techniques.  This state is also known as cardiac coherence, heart brain coherence, heart mind coherence, or simply being “in coherence.”

Low heart coherence

By contrast, in a state of low heart coherence, the heart rate jumps around all over the place. As we can see in the red graph above, instead of a smooth pattern, the graph looks chaotic. In fact, when a person is angry or frustrated, their heart rate generally goes up overall, and their heart coherence becomes much lower. Additionally, their HRV may fluctuate from high to low[10]. This behavior can be explained due to the impact of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system on the heart.

Am I in coherence? What does high heart coherence feel like?

Now that you know what heart coherence is, you may wonder how you can tell if you are in a state of high coherence?

Most people certainly feel different when they’re in coherence. I often hear my students describe it as feeling “open,” “expanded,” or in a state of “loving-kindness.” However, it’s not always easy to tell when you’re in coherence. Sometimes, we may think that we’re in coherence when there’s actually still stress and anxiety simmering under the surface. Some people also struggle to figure out whether they’re getting closer to this state and are never really sure if they’re making any progress.

So, how do you know? Coherence isn’t a binary state where you’re either in it or you’re not. Rather, you can have higher or lower levels of coherence. This is where biofeedback technology can be very helpful, as it can measure your heart patterns and let you know how high your coherence is. Seeing your coherence level increase may help you do more of whatever caused that to happen. You can then train your body-mind to get into a state of high coherence at will. This is the basic idea behind heart coherence biofeedback training.

HeartMath biofeedback technology

If you are familiar with heart rate variance or heart coherence, there’s a good chance you have already heard about HeartMath. With over 30 years of research, HeartMath is widely recognized for its evidence-based products, technologies, and meditation techniques. We have plenty of studies and data we can learn from.

I have personally used the Heartmath Inner Balance Bluetooth sensor and app in my meditation practice with my students. (There are other new options that use your smartwatch and an app, although I don’t have as much experience with these.)

To use HeartMath biofeedback technology

  1. Clip the heartMath sensor to your ear.
  2. The heartMath software analyzes and calculates your HRV and your heart coherence.
  3. You can see your score on the heartMath app on your smartphone or computer in a simple and clear way.
  4. The next step is to shift your levels of coherence by practicing certain breathing techniques or other practices (see below).
  5. You then see on the app how your score changes.
  6. As you keep doing it, you train your nervous system to get into coherence.

By now, you may wonder how exactly you should breathe or do in order to shift your level of coherence? Let’s say you just put on your heartMath sensor. What’s supposed to happen next?

Let’s go over a simple breathing technique you can do to get into a state of heart coherence.

How to get into a state of high coherence in minutes

Over my many years of teaching meditation, I’ve found that each individual has their own doorways into meditative experiences. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to ensure that you shift into a state of high coherence. There are, however, a few guidelines and techniques that often work well for many people. So ultimately, you need to experiment to figure out what works for you. From there, you can fine-tune and create your own unique way that gets you into a state of high coherence.

Here’s a quick and simple breathing technique you can try that can help you get into a state of heart coherence

  1. Allow your breath to slow and deepen.
  2. Ideally, move to a breathing rhythm where your exhalations are longer than your inhalations.
  3. A 2-to-1 breathing pattern, for example, where you inhale for four seconds and exhale for eight, works well for many people. With that said, feel free to experiment with the specifics of your breathing so that it feels natural and comfortable for you.
  4. Some people find it helpful to shift their focus to the area around the heart. This is also known as HeartMath quick coherence technique.
  5. You can place your hands over your heart, imagine light or warmth filling the area, or simply shift your awareness to your heart and notice any sensations that you may feel. If you find that focusing on the heart feels strange or unnatural, you can just skip this step. Not everyone finds this helpful, but some people discover that placing their attention on their hearts helps them to shift their mind’s focus away from distractions.
  6. Next, try to activate a feeling of genuine appreciation for someone or something good in your life. This could be a person you love, a pet, a peaceful and beautiful place, or even the feeling of doing something that you love. Imagine this person, animal, place, or activity as vividly as you can.
  7. If gratitude and appreciation arise, allow yourself to rest in the feeling, soaking in it as thoroughly as possible.
  8. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply, and rest in this feeling of love, care, and appreciation for something good in your life.
  9. Continue for as long as you’d like. Just a few minutes can have a huge effect.

Check your heart coherence score

This simple technique we just explored is a great starting point. Once you’ve given it a try, feel free to experiment and see what works best for you. If you are using the heartMath sensor and app, check your coherence score and track how different changes you make while practicing this technique affect your score.

Once your nervous system has learned what high coherence feels like and how to get there, it becomes much easier to shift into this state at will. You’ll become less and less dependent on biofeedback technology to know whether your coherence is high. Eventually, most people find that they’re able to enter a state of high coherence fairly quickly, even when the technology isn’t readily available in the moment. This can be very useful when you encounter stressful situations and need to find a way to break the stress cycle quickly.

Finding your own path to high coherence

Ultimately, the only way to learn how to bring yourself into high coherence is to practice. You can try various techniques while using biofeedback to determine your level of heart coherence. This will help you to develop a set of personalized techniques that consistently work to shift your state of mind.

Consider various ways of activating feelings like gratitude, appreciation, and love. Because each person’s nervous system is different, each person will have their own unique ways of making this shift. This can be very personal and very specific. For example, you might try smelling a particular scent that reminds you of someone or something that you’re grateful for.

Another thing to keep in mind is that everyone has actually experienced a meditative state, even though they might not have put that particular label on the feeling. So, even if you have struggled with meditation in the past or believe you can’t meditate, you may have already experienced a meditative state without realizing it.

Being in a state of coherence is very natural to humans, and we can spontaneously enter a state of high coherence by imagining a positive situation we feel strongly connected with. For example, try to imagine being on a beach watching the sunset with someone you care deeply about.

Heart coherence research – main benefits

Now that you know how to get into a state of heart coherence let’s go over some of the benefits. Increasing heart coherence has been shown to improve several markers of health and longevity. Overall, it appears that getting into a state of high coherence can help slow down the development of several age-related diseases. Being in a state of high coherence was found to balance the autonomic nervous system, which affects the whole body. The potential benefits of heart coherence, therefore, may affect the entire body as well.

High coherence was associated with significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure[11]. These are the top and bottom numbers you see in your blood pressure reading. Given that high blood pressure has damaging effects throughout the body, this is a very important potential benefit for health and longevity.

Increasing coherence was also associated with lower LDL-cholesterol among people with type 1 diabetes[12]. Additional studies with healthy participants have shown improvements in cholesterol and fasting glucose as well[13].

One landmark study showed that heartMath coherence training caused a 23% reduction in cortisol and a 100% increase in DHEA[14]. Also known as an anti-aging and vitality hormone, DHEA serves as a precursor to sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, which play a key role in aging.

The results of this study are extremely exciting in terms of longevity and anti-aging. Just a few weeks of heart coherence training doubled DHEA without even taking DHEA or other hormones.

Will I benefit from heart coherence training?

The research on the potential benefits of heart coherence training is indeed encouraging, especially since there are no real downsides. So, there’s no reason not to try it out if you’re curious. But is heart coherence training the right one for you?

Based on my years of experience as a meditation teacher, there are some people who would be particularly likely to benefit from using this type of biofeedback.

You struggle with meditation

If you’ve struggled with meditation in the past, then coherence training might be a great tool for you. The biofeedback can help you train your nervous system to enter a meditative state more easily. I’ve met many people who try meditating but then find themselves spending twenty minutes simply wondering whether it’s working or not. Using a tool like this can help you know when you’re getting closer to a meditative state and gradually guide your nervous system towards that state. This can help to relieve the frustration of not being able to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to be doing on that meditation cushion.

You like feedback

If you’re the type of person who really likes to have external feedback to know whether your meditation is working, then this might be a great way for you to get that feedback. Biohackers are often drawn to tools like heartMath because they offer a solid measurement of what’s really happening inside the body. Coherence is something that can be tracked over time and gives you a window into what your nervous system is doing.

You resist the idea of meditation

Using heart coherence biofeedback training may also be helpful for people who resist the idea of meditation. For example, one of my meditation students had a teenage son who thought meditation was “weird” and resisted the idea of trying it. But he was struggling with stress at school, and she felt strongly that meditation would be a useful tool for him. So she gave him heartMath coherence sensor. Using it felt to him more like playing a game than like just sitting around, and he started to use it regularly. If there’s someone in your life who just really doesn’t like the idea of meditation, this might be another way for them to get many of the benefits.

Final thoughts

I’m not saying that everyone absolutely must use this particular technology, or any technology, in order to get into a state of heart coherence. If you’re already experienced with meditation, then it may not be as helpful for you – although it certainly won’t hurt to try it out if you’re curious, and you certainly may get more benefits. But if you’ve struggled with meditation in the past, and/or if you’re the type of person who likes to use technology to get feedback on your health practices, then this might be just the thing to help you train your nervous system and get the health and longevity promoting benefits of being in a state of high coherence.

In our next article, we’ll discuss various life situations where getting into a state of coherence can have a profound effect on you and those around you. Some of these may be quite surprising. To read more, see: 8 surprising benefits of coherence meditation that change lives.

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