Pull the Plug on Stress — this time with feeling!

by / Thursday, 17 March 2016 / Published in Health
Pull the plug on stress

photo taken from my balcony in Sausalito with my iPhone 6

Recently I learned that the Harvard Business Review was planning to republish an article I wrote for them in 2003 entitled “Pull the Plug on Stress”. The reason was a new HBR OnPoint Magazine issue on the theme of “How to Be Productive—Without Burning Out.”
Twelve years after the original publication of the piece, the HBR editors felt — and I agree! — that the message is even more timely and needed today. The article details how a burnt-out senior executive, whose health and performance were failing, utilized HeartMath resilience-building techniques and technology to rebound mentally, emotionally, and physically over a period of a few months. (I was CEO at HeartMath from 2000-2011 and had been one of its founding directors in 1991. I retain a senior advisory role. The original article was co-authored by Rollin McCraty, PhD, HeartMath’s research director, and HeartMath founder Doc Childre.)

In HeartMath’s research, scientists discovered a critical link between various emotional states and the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate, or the heart rhythm pattern. HeartMath’s first research paper was published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995, and has been cited hundreds of times by other research papers and books.

In essence, this link showed, for the first time, that one’s emotional state directly impacted not only the patterns of our changing heart rhythms, but that these patterns in turn affected brain function, i.e., cognitive performance. When our emotions are stress-related, such as frustration, anxiety, or anger, the pattern in the heart rhythm appears chaotic, strained, and nonefficient. On the other hand, when our emotions are loving, compassionate, or filled with fun, those same heart patterns become smooth, ordered, balanced, and efficient. The impact on the brain is what you would expect: chaotic heart rhythms make it hard for the brain to operate at its best, while smooth, coherent heart rhythms allow the brain to function optimally.

Frustration & Appreciation

This was ground-breaking stuff in the mid-1990s when terms like “peak performance”, “optimal performance” and emotional intelligence were coming into vogue, and our knowledge of neuroscience was beginning to explode. But in 1991 when we started, and even in 2003, stress was not universally accepted as the health and performance burden that it is today. The mainstream population is now aware of a wide range of stress-busting activities that help reduce the stress load people carry, as well as having significant health and performance benefits, such as a healthy, plant-based diet, moderate to vigorous exercise, regular stretching as you get with yoga, fun, regenerative outdoor activities, and meditation.

I faced a daunting series of health challenges which began in 2009 with the diagnosis of stage 1 bladder cancer, evolving to staph infections during treatment to insure the cancerous tumor didn’t return, which led to a rapid worsening of arthritic hips, resulting in the need for bilateral hip replacement. These dramatic health events wrapped around the passing of my mother. A period of my life I would not wish on anyone!

Now, thankfully, I am enjoying a level of health and fitness I had not experienced in at least 30 years, thanks in no small part to my long practice of HeartMath’s stress-reducing, resilience-building tools and techniques.

For many of us, the message to “pull the plug on stress” is as relevant as ever, so let’s take heed and create a healthier life for ourselves!