How heart intelligence and coherence techniques allow for increased workplace communication, morale, satisfaction, productivity, and innovative problem-solving, as well as decreased employee turnover and absenteeism.
The veterinary profession is extremely unique in that we focus not only on care of the animal but also of the human. This situation lends itself to very specific challenges across the variety of interactions that we experience within the hospital setting. This article looks at the concept of heart intelligence and how it can be used to combat the stress, morale issues, and other problems facing veterinary teams today.
The inner workings of a veterinary team can at times be compared to a military special ops unit. Most hospitals have a mix of doctors, receptionists, technicians, kennel workers or clean-up crews, as well as a human resource (HR) or business management team. Some larger hospitals have specialty services with doctors exhibiting specific certifications, including, but not limited to, surgeons, radiologists, cardiologists, internists, and integrative practitioners.
Over the past few years, the veterinary profession has seen caseloads increase dramatically due to a variety of circumstances secondary to the policies put into play during the pandemic. The surge in the acquisition of shelter and rescue animals, along with the increase in diseases experienced either from a rise in proximity observation or from increased exposure to human stresses and the exacerbation of chronic disease states, tells us there will never be a shortage of sick and injured animals. Now more than ever, a smooth coherent operating system is imperative for the veterinary practice and the people within it to thrive.
The influx of cases, and the stresses caused by the current state of global affairs, has left no one untouched. The result has often been an inner systems breakdown, affecting both the hospital and the individual within it at a more profound level than was perhaps realized. A rise in stress, reduced morale and job performance, and an increase of ineffective communication leading to misunderstandings and secretive animosity among team members, are all factors.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEAM COHERENCE
The introduction of heart intelligence as a concept for veterinary teams is designed to facilitate solutions that result from a co-created, collaborative effort between the individual and the team. The importance of individual well-being cannot be understated. Many studies have shown that people in situations characterized by isolation, social disorganization, instability or disconnectedness are at increased risk of acquiring many types of diseases. Research done by Dr. JamesLynch demonstrated that in high technologically-advanced societies, loneliness and the effects it has on the heart, blood pressure, and immune system has become the leading cause of premature death. Hypertension and shifts in blood pressure are shown to be a consequence of the “vascular seesaw of human dialogues.”5 Blood pressure rises when we speak to others, yet falls below baseline levels when we listen to others, relate with animals, or go out in nature.
Correlative research also shows that close, meaningful relationships and social networks significantly reduce mortality, decrease susceptibility to infection and chronic disease, and improve recovery from cardiac conditions.6,7 The HeartMath Institute (HMI), established in 1991, is an innovative organization that researches the intuitive intelligence of the heart and provides simple tools and techniques for stress management, coherence training, and resilience building.
Hospitals that have implemented HeartMath training programs for their staff have seen increased personal, team and organizational benefits. Studies show an increase in positive outlook, gratitude, motivation, calmness, and a decrease in fatigue, anxiety, depression, resentfulness and overall stress symptoms.8 More specifically related to medical health fields, results show positive statistical changes in work attitude, goal clarity, communication effectiveness, time pressure, intention to quit, strategic understanding, productivity, and improved relationships between nursing staff and leaders.9
When members of any work group, team, family, or social organization get along well, there is a natural tendency towards cooperation, efficiency and good communication. They act as a collective. The definition of social coherence is a “stable, harmonious alignment of relationships that allows for the efficient flow and utilization of energy and communication required for optimal cohesion and action.”10 The foundation of a strong social coherent environment begins with the individual, and the ability to create a level of personal emotional self-regulation, resilience, and self-mastery. The progression to a coherent system always starts with the individual.
Only in the last 300 years has science recognized the heart as a mechanical pump aiding in the circulation of blood; before that, the heart was recognized by ancient and indigenous cultures as the seat of our emotions and intuition, and the gateway to spiritual insights and divine wisdom.
Over the last 30 years, within the discipline of neurocardiology, scientific investigation by cardio physiologists and neuro-anatomists has uncovered the existence of a complex and sophisticated intrinsic nervous system that has been classified as the “heart brain”. Containing over 40,000 neurons, this “little brain” gives the heart the ability to independently sense, process information, make decisions, and even demonstrate a type of learning and memory. In essence, it appears that the heart is truly an intelligent system.11,12 In 1983, the heart was also classified as an endocrine gland, manufacturing and secreting hormones and neurotransmitters such as atrial natriuretic peptide, oxytocin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine.13
The heart, as an organ, is the largest generator of electrical and magnetic energy in the body, as detected by an electrocardiogram(ECG) and magnetometer respectively.
The heart produces a toroidal-shaped electromagnetic biofield around the body that is 5,000 times stronger than the brain, and has been measured out to a diameter of nine feet.14 This field is a carrier of information that is sensed by other individuals and animals, and has an influence on the world around us.15,16
As the “seat of our emotions”, the heart has been shown by scientific research to not only respond to emotion, but to actually play a major part in determining the quality of our emotional experience from moment to moment via the electromagnetic signals generated by its rhythmic activity. The quality is detected by pattern recognitions of heart rhythms.17 This has been demonstrated by technology designed to measure the amount of coherence based on a complex mathematical model of the relationship between heart rate variability (HRV), resonant heart frequencies, respiration, blood pressure, and skin conductance.18 HRV is the time interval between heartbeats that is associated with heart rhythm patterns and overall systemic wellness. In general, the greater the HRV the healthcare system is.19
WHAT IS COHERENCE?
Coherence is used to describe the degree of order, harmony, and stability in the various rhythmic activities within living systems over any given time period. Psychophysiological coherence pertains to our mental, emotional, and physiological processes. In other words, coherence is when the heart, brain, hormonal, immune and autonomic nervous systems (ANS)are synchronized and in alignment with each other.20 It has been shown that generating and sustaining positive emotions facilitates a shift into a specific measurable physiological state that is correlated to overall health and well-being.20,21
It is important to understand that coherence is not the same as relaxation. At the physiological level, relaxation is characterized by an overall reduction in autonomic outflow and a shift in ANS balance towards increased parasympathetic activity. Coherence is also associated with a relative increase in parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing a key element of the relaxation response. However, it is physiologically distinct from relaxation in that the coherent system oscillates at its natural endogenous resonant frequency, subsequently causing an increase in the harmony and synchronization of nervous system and heart–brain dynamics. When we are relaxed, our mind and body are both in a calm state, in which we tend to be disengaged from emotional and cognitive processes. In a state of coherence, there is an active engagement of positive emotions and a shifting into a more balanced state of calm conducive to everyday functioning and interaction. This includes the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.22 This type of training is used by NASA, Navy Seals, EMTs, law enforcement, and other governmental agencies. From this, you can see that individual and group coherence lends itself to a smooth-flowing cooperative working environment.
QUICK COHERENCE TECHNIQUE
- Heart Focus: Focus your attention in the area of your heart.
- Heart Breathing: Imagine your breath is flowing in and out through that area. Breathe a little slower and deeper than usual— five seconds in, five seconds out.
- Heart Feeling: Continue to breathe through the area of the heart. As you do, recall a positive feeling, experience, or memory of care, compassion or appreciation for someone or something and try to re-experience it. Allow yourself to feel this good feeling.
Our thoughts and emotions are the foundational drivers of our physiology. It is said that the brain thinks, but the heart knows. Thoughts are the language of the brain and feelings are the language of the body. The heart and brain are in constant communication: neurologically, mechanically, biochemically and energetically. It is a dynamic bidirectional communication: not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.23
In the past, it was believed that heart function was primarily controlled by the brain. Research over the last 30 years has shown that 90% of afferent information travels from the heart to the brain, meaning that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.24,25 When we understand the dynamics of the way the heart and brain communicate, we gain an appreciation for the ability we have to facilitate the conversation within our own bodies. The smooth and harmonious flow of communication between the heart and brain depend on our emotional state.
Research done at HMI has demonstrated that different emotional states have distinct effects on cognitive function and heart rhythm patterns. States of stress and negative emotions such as fear, judgment, irritability, resentment, and anger create a distorted signal and neural inhibition of our neocortex or higher-thinking brain. This has shown to limit our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.
In contrast, positive emotional states like care, appreciation, gratitude, and compassion facilitate a clear signal and increase cognitive function. This also acts to perpetuate self-generating positive emotions and emotional stability.26,27
In essence, learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by using scientifically proven techniques and sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.
EFFECTS OF JOB STRESS
The leading causes of stress in adults are money issues and the social environment at work. Job stress is estimated to cost American companies more than $300 billion a year in health costs, absenteeism, and poor performance.
Here are some statistics:
- 40% of job turnover results from stress1
- Healthcare expenditures are nearly 50% higher for workers who report high levels of stress2
- An estimated 60% of all job absenteeism is caused by stress3
- Depression and unmanaged stress are the top two most costly risk factors in terms of medical expenditure.4
Specifically related to the veterinary field, veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide. According to a 2020 study from Merck Animal Health in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association, female veterinarians have higher levels of suicidal thoughts, but male veterinarians have a higher rate of suicide attempts.
Techniques used to generate emotional self-regulation, and build personal resilience, benefit the individual, the team, and the organization as a whole. They allow for increased workplace communication, morale, satisfaction, productivity, innovative problem-solving, decreased employee turnover and absenteeism. As we learn to navigate our emotional landscape with a level of self-mastery and observational awareness from a place of compassion and care for oneself and each other, we can begin to build and sustain a level of coherence not only in ourselves but with our teams.
- Hoel, H.K. Sparks, and C.L. Cooper. The cost of violence/stress and the benefits of a violence/stressfreework environment. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2001.
- Kalia M. Assessing the economic impact of stress, the modern day hidden epidemic.Metabolism,2002. 51 (6):p 49-53.
- Cooper C, Payne, R.Causes, Coping and Consequences of Stress at Work.1988, John Wiley & Sons Ltd:New York.
- Goetzel R.Z, et al. The relationship between modifiable health risks and healthcare expenditures. An analysis of the multi-employer HERO health risk and cost database. The Health Enhancement ResearchOrganization (HERO)Research Committee.Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 1998,40 (10): p843-854.
- Lynch J.J.A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness 2000.Baltimore,MD. Bancroft Press.
- Berkman L.F., Syme S.L. Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents.Am J Epidemiol,1979. 109(2): p. 186-204.
- Marmot M.G., Syme S.L. Acculturation and coronary heart disease in Japanese-Americans.Am JEpidemiol,1976. 104(3): p. 225-47.
- Pipe T.B., et al. Building personal and professional resources of resilience and agility in the healthcare workplace.Stress and Health,2012. 28(1): p. 11-22.
- Goldfisher A.M., Hounslow B., Blank J. Transforming and Sustaining the Care Environment.GlobalAdvances in Health and Medicine,2014. 3(Suppl 1): p. BPA11.
- Bradley R.T.Charisma and Social Structure: A Study of Love and Power, Wholeness and Transformation.1987, New York: Paragon House.
- Armour J.A. Anatomy and function of the intrathoracic neurons regulating the mammalian heart,inReflex Control of the Circulation, I.H. Zucker and J.p. Gilmore, Editors. 1991, CRC Press: Boca Raton.p. 1-37.
- Armour J.A., Potential clinical relevance of the ‘little brain’ on the mammalian heart.Exp Physiol,2008. 93(2): p. 165-76.
- Cantin M., Genest J. The heart as an endocrine gland.Pharmacol Res Commun,1988. 20 Suppl3: p. 1-22.
- Baule G., McFee R. Detection of the magnetic field of the heart.American Heart Journal, 1963.55(7): p. 95-96.
- Tiller W.A., McCraty R., Atkinson M. Cardiac coherence: A new, noninvasive measure of autonomic nervous system order. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine,1996. 2(1): p. 52-65.
- McCraty R., Atkinson M., Tiller W.A. New electrophysiological correlates associated with intentional heart focus. Subtle Energies,1993. 4(3): p. 251-268.
- McCraty R., Atkinson M., Tomasino D., Bradley R.T.Thecoherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order.Integral Review, 2009.5(2): p. 10-115.
- Bigger J.T. Jr., et al. Frequency domain measures of heart period variability and mortality after myocardial infarction.Circulation, 1992. 85(1): p. 164-71.
- Shaffer F., McCraty R., Zerr C. A healthy heart is not a metronome: An integrative review of the heart’s anatomy and heart rate variability. Frontiers in Psychology,2014. 5:1040.
- Tiller, W.A., McCraty R., Atkinson M. Cardiac coherence: A new, noninvasive measure of autonomicnervous system order.Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine,1996. 2(1): p. 52-65.
- McCraty R., et al. The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability.American Journal of Cardiology,1995. 76(14): p. 1089-1093.
- Increase Performances in Ski-Biathlon by Reducing Anxiety Stress Using Mental Training Techniques.HeartMath Institute,2018,www.heartmath.org/research/research-library/abstracts/ski-biathlon-mental-training-techniques/.
- McCraty, R. Chapter 1: Heart- Brain Communication.Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart, by Doc Lew Childre et al., HeartMath Research Center, Institute of HeartMath, 2001, pp. 1-7.
- Cameron O.G.Visceral Sensory Neuroscience: Interception.2002, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Armour J.A. Peripheral autonomic neuronal interactions in cardiac regulation, inNeurocardiology,J.A. Armour and J.L. Ardell, Editors. 1994, Oxford University Press: New York. p. 219-244.
- McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tomasino D., Bradley, R.T. The coherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order.Integral Review, 2009.5(2): p. 10-115.
- Lane R.D, et al. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex correlates with vagal component of heart ratevariability during emotion.Brain and Cognition,2001. 47: p. 97-100
- HeartMath.org Quick Coherence Technique
Barrie Sands is a veterinarian, healer, educator, scientist, author, artist and speaker. Within a diversity of passions, she values seeking truth as it pertains to our humanity and the relationships that we have with ourselves, each other, nature and the animals we co-habitate with.