Clipped to my ear is a small sensor and on a computer screen three different graphs give information about my heart. At this stage all I can work out is that I have a heartbeat of 58. Wanting to gain some control over the stress in my life, I am doing a workshop with HeartMath Australasia.
The HeartMath system of stress management is based on 15 years of scientific research completed at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California. The system includes courses and an educational software program designed to help people manage and transform their stress.
HeartMath Australasia was founded in 2001 and its clients include Vodafone, Redbull and PriceWaterhouse, as well as individuals.
Stress and health
Dr Olivia de Bergerac, the workshop facilitator, starts the session with a presentation on stress and its causes and effects.
“We are mostly operating on memories and emotional reactions,” she says in a lilting French accent. “So rarely do we use our full potential”. Stress becomes a habit because we react in the same way again and again.
She explains that stress impacts on health and reels off a list of disorders – including impaired memory and raised blood sugar levels – which have been linked to stress.
“And,” she adds, “because the body produces excessive cortisol when stressed, which lowers the body's DHEA (a hormone made in the body and secreted by the adrenal gland), it causes premature ageing”.
I ponder how, with all the pressures of 21st century living, I could possibly not be stressed.
“We can't change the modern-day situation,” Dr de Bergerac says, as if reading my thoughts. “But we can change our response to it”.
Just beat it
Apparently, when the heart and the brain are in high coherence a person is stress-free and able to perform. This is where the ear sensor and the emWave PC software come in.
The three graphs on the screen show me where I'm at. The top graph reflects my heart rate variability pattern, which is a measure of the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. The erratic graph line indicates high-level stress, and the block graph has a large column of red, showing there is low coherence between my heart and brain.
Dr de Bergerac's colleague, Maria Thompson, asks me how I would estimate my daily ratio of positive emotions compared to negative ones. I reckon it's about 70 per cent negative and 30 per cent positive.
I'm then taught an exercise called the Quick Coherence Technique, which focuses on the heart, and includes a breathing method. I close my eyes and go through the steps. When I open them again the computer screen shows that I have moved from low to high coherence.
The second exercise I'm shown is called the Heart Lock-In. As part of the exercise I envisage walking along the beach, being with people I love and spending time in the bush. I can almost feel my heart opening. The sensation is amazing, and the computer screen shows I am in a state of high coherence.
Thompson tells me to practice the two techniques, and rings me 10 days later for a follow-up session. She asks how I would assess my ratio of negative to positive feelings today.
I realise that I have caught myself about to descend into despondency quite a few times, and instead focused on the heart. At other times I've been as stressed as ever but have been aware of it, whereas previously I wasn't.
Thompson assures me that I'm on track, and that it's only after two to four weeks of practice that I'll be able to transform the stress. So I'm continuing to develop my heart muscle, and although no-one's told me I look younger, it's making me feel good.
Find out more
A four-hour workshop costs $330 per person. HeartMath Australasia also offers individual coaching sessions by phone or face to face, corporate workshops and the emWavePC Interactive Learning system. For information call (02) 9412 2500 or visit www.heartmath.com.au. HeartMath, Quick Coherence and Heart Lock-In are registered trademarks of HeartMath LLC.