What has the brain in the heart got to do with brain fitness? Your heart actually has a very sophisticated nervous system all of its own, which sends more data up than the brain sends down. Your heart actually regulates itself, rather than run on signals from the brain.
Turns out that if we can regulate the time between heart beats, which the scientists call heart rate variability coherence, we keep the inside of our body full of DHEA which is the anti-aging hormone instead of adrenalin and cortisol, which are the stress hormones which can take us into fight or flight chemistry in all of 1/18th second.
If we are driving down the road and someone crosses the center line, we need stress hormones to save our life, but unfortunately, the body will give us lots of adrenaline and cortisol and fire us up for fight or flight when we get a nasty letter from the IRS, which is not life threatening, so the latter stress response puts us at risk for inappropriate behavior.
One of the side effects of too frequent doses of adrenaline and cortisol is the death of new born neurons.
So imagine yourself learning to pay close attention to the inside of your body, and creating heart rate variability cohence (feels good) on demand.
I call it a short and frequent 11th step, and the impact on your brain fitness and your neurogenesis can be profound.
How fast does your Central Nervous System work? In 1993, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. wrote in Finding Flow, the Psycholoy of Optimal Experience, that we process sensory data seven bits at a time, and the shortest time between packages of data is 1/18th second, which is faster than you can blink your eyes.
Paul Ekman, Ph.D. says that we process facial expressions in 1/25th second, and Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. says that drivers my age need to be able to respond to changing road conditions in 1/45th second I believe.
What does that mean for us recovering folks? It means a resentment that I might not even be aware of takes perhaps 1/18th second to formulate, and it changes the inside of my body just as fast, and...the same facts are true for gratitude thoughts, aren't they?
Perhaps then I want to pay attention to my heart beat, and its coherence, because as I learn to do that I learn to do a profound kind of stress managment.
In fact, the better I get at it, the more my body tells me that it prefers that calm contented state, which sounds like serenity, doesn't it?
Side effect of serenity done heart beat by heart beat? The Promises come true and I grow new neurons.
So how do I do this heart beat by heart beat kind of stress management?
I used a tool called Heartmath, short for heart rate variability biofeedback, to first learn how to regulate the time between my heart beats, which took perhaps 6 one half hour practices.
Once learned, the physiology of heart rate variability coherence can be cued on any given heart beat by repeating my cue thought and breathing through my heart a few times.
The operative phrase above is "on any given heart beat". As long as my heart is beating I can use this process to counteract stress, or better yet, to engineer contentment.
My cue thought is to place my children in the volume of space surrounding my heart, and to breathe through my chest a few times, and I can feel the change.
One important caveat...the really sweet Heartmath feeling will recede, like any other emotion, including pain, or grief, and when that happens to us recovering folks, we may feel anxious about it.
Just understand that you can re-cue heart rate variability coherence on any given heart beat and an important side effect is the growth of new neurons. And serenity.