Getting To The “Heart” Of Employee Health
Most of us learned in school that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, less commonly known is that the heart sends far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.
Different patterns of heart rhythm (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress. This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when stressed.
In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect—it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings, emotional stability, and perceptual clarity. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence by sustaining positive emotions not only benefits the entire body but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel and perform.
Breathing patterns and rates are one of the main influencers of heart rhythms. When we breathe shallow and/or mouth breath, we’re signaling the autonomic nervous system to be in the sympathetic response (or stress response). When we’re diaphragmatically nasal breathing, we’re signaling the parasympathetic response (or relaxation response) of the autonomic nervous system. Another benefit of nasal diaphragmatic breathing is the stimulation of the vagus nerve which only happens with nasal breathing.
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and known as the “wandering nerve” – vagus means “wandering” in Latin – because it has multiple branches that spread out from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve is the prime component of the parasympathetic nervous system and a driver of heart rate variability, which is, basically, the space between heartbeats.
Here’s a short lesson breathing anatomy and physiology. Our inhale is designed for a sympathetic response (heart rate goes up) and our exhale is parasympathetic (heart rate goes down). In addition, each nostril speaks to our autonomic nervous system. Our right nostril gives a sympathetic response on the inhale and our left nostril gives a parasympathetic response.
In order for us to have healthy vagal tone, we should be paying attention to the length, depth and pace of our inhale and exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale—is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety.
A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. Conversely, a low vagal tone index is associated with inflammation, depression, negative moods, loneliness, heart attacks, and stroke.
So, in a culture of mouth and shallow breathing, we’re barely exhaling before initiating the next inhale. We’re exhibiting high heart rates and low vagal tone. The good news is you’re just one breath away from improving your health and well-being.
Here are two simple exercises to get you started:
- Begin diaphragmatically breathing
- Once you’ve developed a steady rhythm of breath, try diaphragmatically inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for a count of 6. Work your way up to 4 & 8, then 5 & 10 and so on. We want to double the length of our exhale to strengthen the parasympathetic response.
- Another technique would be to close off your right nostril and begin diaphragmatically breathing in and out through your left nostril to encourage a parasympathetic response. Do this for 3 minutes several times a day.
Is a mindful breathing program part of your employee health programs? Discover a “life with breath” by using breath as your medicine to improve health, executive functioning, emotional intelligence and organizational performance.
About the Author
Ed Harrold is an inspirational leader, public speaker, coach and educator. Ed’s mastery in the science of mindful breathing has guided him to apply conscious breathing practices in corporate performance coaching, fitness & athletic training, healthcare trainings, stress reduction and overall health and well-being. The release of Ed’s book “Life With Breath” is March 2017.
Today, Ed blends the fields of neuroscience and the wisdom of contemplative traditions into effective strategies to improve well-being in Corporate America, Healthcare, athletic performance and individual health. Ed’s fluency in mindfulness-based strategies combined with the belief in the human potential gives him the depth and understanding to meet individuals and group needs across industries and platforms.
Ed is a contributing health & wellness editor for Huffingtpost, Thrive Global, MindBodyGreen, PTOnTheNet, TRX Training & Aloha Magazines. Experience Ed’s MindBodyAthlete™, F-FORCE™, Performance Coaching, Simplicity of Stress & professional CME trainings nationally & internationally. Learn more about Ed at www.edharrold.com
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