Stress need not dominate our lives

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We have been hearing for years that stress is bad for your heart. Not only is that intuitive, but there has been ample evidence piling up in the medical literature over the last ten years or so that confirms this.

And it’s not just your heart – many chronic illnesses are now linked to stress and the way we live our lives.

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What’s actually happening here? Oddly enough, there’s a huge paradox at work. The human stress response was wired into us from the beginning. About 200,000 years ago, when we first inhabited this big ball, there were frequent threats to our physical survival.

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Faster and meaner animals made short order out of us. Our nervous systems were programmed to quickly spill chemicals like adrenaline into our bloodstreams, allowing blood pressure and heart rate to increase and deliver more blood to our muscles so we could run fast and escape danger.

In addition, hormones like cortisol were released in the event that the tiger might catch us. Cortisol raises blood sugar, amongst other things. Blood sugar (glucose) is needed to run all the machinery of the body. We now know that there are over 1,400 biochemical reactions in the stress response, and they are linked to our survival.

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The problem, of course, is that there are no more tigers. We live in an environment with very few threats to our physical well-being. But our stress buttons are being pushed by hundreds of aggravations that have nothing to do with our survival. Budgets, taxes, traffic jams, family issues, gasoline prices – all these things create negative emotional states and spill hormones into our system every day.

It’s no surprise that high blood pressure, high blood sugar (diabetes) and obesity are combining to create the No. 1 killer in the United States: heart disease.

Some fascinating research now shows that the heart is intimately involved in signaling the brain, a concept that seems upside down. Quite apart from our paradigm of how things work, the Institute of HeartMath, a research organization in Boulder Creek, Calif., ( has found that the electromagnetic signal of the heart is approximately 50 times the amplitude of the brain signals. It can be measured eight feet outside the body. In addition, there turns out to be much more information going north from heart to brain than the other way around.

This has allowed a simple set of easily learned tools to be developed using technology that has been around for about 40 years, called Heart Rate Variability. Realizing that the heart signals were so powerful, researchers at the Institute of HeartMath experimented with techniques to change these signals. What they found was that the brain, especially the cognitive part that serves many higher order functions like perception, analysis and judgment, could be significantly influenced by the pattern of signals from the heart.

These tools have now been used in seminars in education, health care, Fortune 500 companies, all four branches of the military and athletics at the highest levels. Since cognitive function, and hence performance, are directly impacted by stress, using the much more powerful heart signal to change performance made a lot of sense. And it worked.

While companies were able to demonstrate that job satisfaction, customer satisfaction, absenteeism and health care costs all improved, professional golfers noted less tension in their swings and lower scores. School children with test anxiety enjoyed significant increases in their scores. Kids were able to come off their ADHD medications. Less industrial errors were made. High blood pressure was reduced, sometimes allowing patients to come off their drugs, or lower the doses. Corporate climates changed.

Many people reading this blog might feel that a certain amount of stress is productive.  Some of you may even consider yourselves "stress athletes." Stress, as we now know it, is really our body’s reaction – physically, mentally and emotionally – to an external event.

It’s not the event itself. We can, as it turns out, learn quite easily how to change this automatic response. And we should. It’s not only killing us, but making us less efficient.

We can achieve "the zone" in a way that is measurable and reproducible. What’s even more surprising is how easily that is accomplished. Five-year-olds, police officers, nurses, factory workers and CEOs all have the capacity to learn these tools in minutes.

In the long run, the energy drain that is avoided makes for higher performance at lower cost. You cannot only take that to the bank, but to your doctor.

Dr. Bruce Wilson is a Mequon cardiologist and medical director for HeartMath. He is the founder and chief executive officer of HeartMatters.MD, a company that provides seminars on stress reduction and enhanced performance to individual clients and corporations worldwide. More information is available at

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