When it comes to stress, most Americans don’t need a designated month to realize what they already know – stress is part of modern life and can’t always be avoided. Perhaps the most puzzling issue around stress is what really works when it comes to reducing it.
Recent surveys by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveal that stress is an increasing and on-going issue for Americans. More than one third (36 percent) of U.S. workers report experiencing work stress regularly, according to APA survey findings released in March. Another significant APA survey released in November revealed American families recognize they have high stress levels, but lack the time and willpower to make appropriate changes.
What is “stress?”
Stress comes from our perception and emotional reactions to an event or idea. It can be any feeling of anxiety, irritation, frustration, or hopelessness, etc.
Stress is not only created by a response to an external situation or event. A lot of daily stress is created by ongoing attitudes, that is, recurring feelings of agitation, worry, anxiety, anger, judgments, resentment, insecurities and self-doubt. These emotions are known to drain emotional energy while engaging in everyday life.
It is emotions—more than thoughts alone—activating physical changes that make up the “stress response.” Emotions trigger the autonomic nervous system and, in turn, trigger stress hormones that cause many harmful effects on the brain and body.
Stressful feelings actually lead to a chaotic pattern in the beat-to-beat changes in the heart’s rhythm–indicating that our nervous system is out of sync. When this happens, a cascade of over 1,400 biochemical changes are set in motion that have a wide range of effects on the body’s systems.
Why Today’s Stress is Different
Experts say an important factor in today’s stress experience is that it’s not just about the single incident type of stress that naturally follows trauma, illness, job change, or other major life event. For most people it’s the wear and tear of daily life. What used to work for stress relief before may not be as effective today, because modern stress is more about the on-going levels people are experiencing.
Daily life stress can be difficult to change because of how the brain works. Through repeated experiences of stress, the brain learns to recognize the patterns of activity associated with “stress” as a familiar baseline, and in a sense, it becomes normal and comfortable. Without effective intervention, stress can become self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing.
Traditionally, stress research has focused on the mental processes that affect our perception and the body’s response to it. Some of today’s most pertinent stress research comes from the Institute of HeartMath, which has contributed greatly to the understanding the underlying mechanics of stress and its relationship to our patterned emotional responses.
HeartMath research examines the role of the emotional system in the stress process. Scientists discovered a critical link between stress, emotions, heart function and cognitive performance. From this research they have seen that while mental processes play a role in stress, the real fuel for the stress is unmanaged emotions. Simply put, emotions have the power to fuel a thought into a high-definition experience of stress.
According to the research, the harmful effects stress places on the brain and body are in fact the physiological repercussions of negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, resentment, etc.
What Works and What Doesn’t Work
Most stress has an emotional source, yet until now most of the widely used stress management methods have not focused directly on emotions. Instead, more often they focus on distraction methods, quieting the mind or trying to relax.
These practices may be enjoyable – such as taking a hot bath, or treatments like massage and aromatherapy – yet the fact remains that real solutions need to address the root cause of stress. They need to transform the deeper, recurring emotional patterns that sustain stress-producing feelings. Without essential changes at the emotional level, any other stress-relief method is likely to be short-lived.
Emotion regulation (or self-regulation) techniques are a direct and powerful way to override and transform underlying patterns of unhealthy psychological, behavioral and physiological stress responses.
HeartMath has become a leader in this area. They have developed a scientifically-validated system of techniques, programs and technologies addressing the core of the stress response. HeartMath is helping people change how they respond to stress by giving them tools to build new habits that replace their old familiar stress response patterns, which results in increased resilience and more stress tolerance.
Emotions are Powerful Energy
Since emotions – in and of themselves – are a powerful energy, it takes an equally powerful energy to transform them. Research in the neurosciences has made it quite clear that emotional processes operate at a much higher speed than thoughts because they frequently bypass the mind’s entire linear reasoning process. Thus activation of positive emotions plays a critical role in breaking the stress cycle and effectively transforming stress at its source.
HeartMath techniques focus on replacing the old stress responses by drawing on positive emotions to cultivate new patterns and more productive attitudes. In addition, these techniques incorporate a process of changing one’s heart rhythm pattern.
Emotions are tightly connected to the heart, and not just metaphorically speaking. Using the measurement of heart rate variability – the naturally occurring beat-to-beat fluctuations in heart rate – HeartMath researchers have demonstrated that distinct heart rhythm patterns characterize different emotional states.
In general, emotional stress – including emotions such as anger, frustration and anxiety – leads to heart-rhythm patterns that appear incoherent and look erratic, disordered and jagged. This incoherent state puts more strain on the nervous system and the bodily organs, and it also inhibits the flow of communication and information being passed throughout all the body’s systems – the brain, heart and hormonal, immune and nervous systems.
In contrast, positive emotions – such as appreciation, care, compassion and love – generate an orderly sine wave-like pattern in the heart’s rhythms. Heart rhythms associated with positive emotions like appreciation are clearly more coherent than those generated during a negative emotional experience like frustration. As a result, communication between the brain, heart, and nervous system is enhanced.
Positive emotions are associated with a specific physiological state called coherence. This system-wide state is associated with improved physiological functioning, emotional stability and cognitive performance.
Emotion refocusing techniques are much like resetting a thermostat. A new comfort zone is established when healthier emotional patterns become familiar and positive attitudes – like new temperatures – are eventually acknowledged as the norm.
How it Works in Real-Time
According to positive psychology research positive emotions are critical to our effective adaptation to life’s challenges, and to our growth and development as human beings. They help to shape behavior by promoting helpfulness, generosity, and effective cooperation.
Using positive emotion-refocusing exercises in the moment that stress is experienced can help to change the perception of stress and greatly reduce or even stop the typical stress response when encountering a challenging or evoking situation.
Surgeons have one of the top five most stressful occupations as Dr. Joseph F. McCaffrey can attest to being a vascular surgeon at Auburn Memorial Hospital in New York. “When an anesthesiologist told me that he wouldn’t give his high-risk patient anesthesia because the patient hadn’t been evaluated properly, I almost lost it!” said Dr. McCaffrey. “This was the second such incident in less than a week. I was ready to blow up. I just about had my finger on the anesthesiologist’s chest, when I decided to use one of the techniques I learned from HeartMath.”
“Going through the technique’s steps I was able to transform my anger” Using the emotion refocusing technique enabled McCaffrey to clear his agitation and access a different perception. “I realized that the anesthesiologist was as interested in taking good care of the patient as I was. Keeping that common ground in mind, I was able to bring the anesthesiologist around to my point of view – without exploding. I could have been an obnoxious surgeon, but that wouldn’t have made for a very collegial relationship,” said Dr. McCaffrey.
One of the most widely used emotion refocusing techniques is called Quick Coherence® and it was developed by HeartMath. This three-step tool helps to cultivate new heart coherence patterns and emotional responses.
As the simple steps are applied, the body’s functions synchronize to a coherent state, minimizing the experience of stress and allowing for a more intelligent response to the situation. HeartMath stress experts say the key lies in the third step of the technique in recalling positive emotions. Whenever stress buttons are being pushed, the following is useful to help refocus:
The Quick Coherence® Technique
- Heart focus: Shift your attention to the area of the heart and breathe slowly and deeply.
- Heart breathing: Keep your focus in the heart by gently breathing – five seconds in and five seconds out – through your heart. Do this two or three times before moving to the next step.
- Heart feeling: Activate and sustain a genuine feeling of appreciation or care for someone or something in your life. Focus on the good heart feeling as you continue to breathe through the area of your heart.
Technologies for Resilience Coaching
There are devices that use heart rhythm feedback to help people measure their emotional state in real-time so users can learn what works when it comes to emotion management. Such devices, when applied with emotion refocusing techniques, allow users to manage stress and gain more control over their well-being.
There are a few technologies like this on the market; however the emWave® is the most widely used. Over 10,000 health professionals around the country use it to help patients that suffer from reoccurring stress and anxiety. The effectiveness of this technology has been documented by independent studies and peer review journals.
While the technology and method have proven successful for everyday stress, it’s also shown to be effective for more extreme stress issues. The U.S. military is now using this same approach with soldiers to help them manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therapists have also found the technology to work with children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The take-home message is this: managing stress in a way that truly works – without avoiding it, neglecting it, trying to overpower it, or become a victim of it –begins and ends by focusing on the core of stress patterns: the emotional state. Thanks to science there are now very effective methods that have been developed and proven effective without requiring significant time investments and or major life changes.
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