Transforming stress through the power of the heart
Let’s face it — life today is overwhelming. We are bombarded with information, distractions, expectations and competing commitments. We live with a constant sense of there not being enough time for all the things we believe are important to us. It’s a struggle to stay on top of the to-do-list let alone longer term goals. On top of that, we are living and working in an era of profound uncertainty and accelerated pace of change. I wrote about this and the need to learn new adaptive ways of thinking, being and doing in my PhD. From this intellectual, abstract standpoint, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of how to more wisely engage with the challenges of Modernity. And then…..I had my first baby. In my sleep-deprived state, I didn’t feel very wise. Or adaptive. I found myself highly anxious and needing to do some deep emotional work of my own at the same time as learning how to be a new mum. This drew me to HeartMath — a system of practices to help transform stress and overwhelm into adaptive resilience and renew energy levels. At a deeper level, its about balancing the thinking/doing self with the feeling/being self. In this article, I share my biggest lessons from my HeartMath journey:
1. We need to plug our subtle energy drains
A big part of HeartMath is about getting better at noticing what drains your energy throughout the day. When our inner battery is empty, it is hard to be resilient, think clearly or make good decisions. Its easy to spot the obvious energy drains, like lack of sleep, a tough conversation or a short deadline to meet. But I learned that its the more subtle drains that have the biggest depleting effect, like a “poor me” attitude or a need to always be right. These subtle energy drains will be unique to each individual and hard to see. Just like the fish doesn’t notice the water that it is always swimming in. But through HeartMath I was able to notice the draining effect of subtle but pervasive mindsets such as a need to be in control or please people.
2. Simple is powerful
HeartMath techniques are simple, quick and designed to be used in the moment. I loved the “quick coherence” technique – a mix of heart-focused breathing whilst activating a renewing feeling such as care or appreciation. Using the techniques little and often is key and the effects are cumulative. Over time, you can re-set your baseline response to stress. The techniques become a go-to reflex rather than something you have to take time out to practice. At first, my ego fought this gift of simplicity. As is typical for me, I would want to analyse, theorise and over-complicate my experiences. I saw how this was keeping me in my head. But it’s feelings that shift our physiology, not thoughts. When I just trusted the simplicity of the techniques and refocused on my heart, I was able to access deeper insights and resilience.
3. The biggest lessons come from when it feels most hard to practice
A great teaching our tutor offered us was to pay attention to when it felt most difficult to use the techniques or when we felt some resistance. I noticed that “inner drama” was what most often stopped me from using the techniques. I was choosing to brood, self-justify and blame, even though I knew I was only draining my own inner battery by doing so. Now that I’ve noticed this pattern, the biggest difference is a much shorter lag time between the inner drama and choosing to shift my emotions. I’d by lying if I said I no longer got triggered, but I do not stay stuck for anywhere near as long as I once did. I am much quicker to recover and plug my energy leaks.
4. Coherence not relaxation
HeartMath is about intentionally cultivating a state of inner-ease or coherence. This is not the same as relaxation, which is characterised by a low heart rate. Instead, its more like a state of flow and is associated with clearer thinking, better decision making, creativity, focus and high performance. HeartMath uses biofeedback technology (measuring heart rate variability) so you can learn when you are actually in this state and what it feels like (Interestingly, when I practiced with a mindset of “trying too hard to get it right”, the technology showed me I became less coherent not more). Learning to access a state of coherence has been a joyful revelation for me. It has become like an anchor and a wellspring from which I can engage in deep work, connect meaningfully with others and recharge my inner battery. My experience of time is very different in this state too. I don’t feel rushed or that I should be anywhere else other than where I am.
5. A new sense of purpose
I used to feel that having a sense of purpose was about an external direction. I now feel it is about an inner compass that guides me back to a state of coherence. From that place, good stuff just happens! When I encounter challenges, I see my responsibility as not to fix or eliminate them, but to take care of the inner place from which I meet those challenges. I still get sucked into an anxious, “fix it” mentality, but I know that I’ve got an anchor to reconnect me. I don’t drift too far for too long. As our wise tutor reminded us, our hearts are always with us.