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What Drives Heart Coherence - Breathing Or Positive Emotion

Publication date: 22nd November 2016

Recently I was speaking with a client about heart coherence and the question came up - not for the first time for me - of whether heart coherence is driven by breathing in a certain way, or by experience of positive emotions such as joy, gratitude and hope. My client's experience was that it was breathing. My own answer, in short, is that it is primarily breathing, but that positive emotion can significantly modulate the level of coherence. In this article I want to fill out that answer using a recent example taken from my own mindfulness meditation practice.

First a quick definition of heart coherence: it's a pattern of change in heart rate where the heart rate speeds up and then slows down again in sync with the breath. The graphic below shows the heart coherence pattern.

heart coherence biofeedback

Coherence is a natural and reflex-like pattern - you don't do it by force of will but by allowing the body to naturally fall into the pattern.

At the physiological level, heart coherence is driven in the first place by the breath. I explain this in more depth in this article on heart coherence.

There seems to be a sort of resonance point at which coherence is maximal, and it tends to be when the breathing is slow and steady at about six breaths per minute.

Heart coherence biofeedback, or HRV biofeedback, has become popular in recent years, and much of the credit for that must go to the Heartmath Institute. In their teaching, they emphasise the triggering of positive emotions (usually by bringing to mind the memory of a positive experience) as a way of generating heart coherence, and they tend to put less emphasis on the breath. Are they right?

My own experience is that positive emotions can indeed facilitate coherence, but only if they invoke a shift of breathing, so that the breathing slows from a more everyday breathing rate to something closer to 6 bpm. Without this slow regular breathing, coherence is always going to be pretty minimal.

I would add that consciously slowing down and regularizing breathing probably helps to make positive emotions easier to access, which is part of the value of HRV biofeedback.

But I also believe if you can do both together, that's when coherence is going to be best. In other words, if you can have a natural, slow regular breathing at the same time as experiencing some positive emotions, you'll see this reflected in your biofeedback software readings. This is exactly what happened to me just a couple of days ago.

I have a regular mindfulness of breathing meditation practice, and I usually use HRV biofeedback as support. On the day in question, I'd been having some creative ideas in relation to my future plans. I fell into a kind of reverie of enthusiastically anticipating a golden future. (Yes, it was ultimately a distraction from meditation, but quite an enjoyable one). My coherence score reflected my emotional state at these times, as you can see in the graphic below (the blue arrows indicate the period of time in question).

heart coherence biofeedback with enthusiasm

If you look at the scale on the vertical axis, you can see that my peak coherence is just cresting 100. On a typical day for me, it's much lower. Here's a more typical graph, where you can see that most of the time the coherence score isn't above 50.

normal heart coherence biofeedback session

The numbers themselves are ultimately arbitrary creations of the software - the only thing that matters is the relative difference. In fact the graphs and the numbers come from my own software, Mind-Body Training Tools biofeedback software, which you can read more about here. It has a unique way of quantifying coherence, that's different from other HRV software programs such as Heartmath emwave.

The emotion that I was experiencing, I would name as "anticipatory enthusiasm". It was quite energy-charged, but not all positive emotions are. They range from calm and tranquil (e.g. serenity) to buzzing and motivating, e.g. enthusiasm. My experience is that it's the energy charged positive emotions that build coherence, much more than the calm ones.

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