Program helps employees have 'change of heart'

Lower stress levels, blood pressure seen

A health strategy directed at inner quality management (IQM) has helped employees reduce their mental and physical symptoms of stress and in one case, even lower their blood pressure, according to the provider, HeartMath LLC, a Boulder Creek, CA, training and consulting company.

"Quite succinctly, it's all about the power of positive feeling," explains Jerry M. Kaiser, director of the HeartMath health services division. Kaiser has previously served as director of occupational stress programs at the AFL-CIO. "What we need to do is put the heart back into people's lives. It is the fears, the worries, the anxieties and other emotional reactivity that bleeds organizations of their productivity, health, and creativity," Kaiser says.

When Kaiser uses the word "heart," he is not being figurative. The goal of HeartMath's system is to help employees, through the company's techniques, to physically change their heart's rhythms, thereby achieving more physical energy, mental clarity, and a happier, peaceful feeling.

HeartMath has the results to back up its claims. At The California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS) in Sacramento, 161 staff reported a 75% (from 12% to 3%) decrease in the number of people reporting feelings of depression often or most of the time. Before the program, 48% of the participants reported they felt energetic often or most of the time. After the HeartMath program that number jumped to 61%.

A study at Motorola1 also showed significant benefits. Before the program, more than 25% of the participants had high blood pressure levels. After six months of using HeartMath techniques they all had normal blood pressure levels, and no conventional medical interventions had been used. (Is this medically possible? See the related story on p. 94.)

Based on science

The HeartMath techniques, says Kaiser, are based on scientific research conducted by the organization's nonprofit partner, the Institute of HeartMath. "They research the physiological connections through which emotional states affect the heart and other physiological systems," he explains. "We have become increasingly aware of the role of stress in cardiovascular disease. We have conducted research and published on a measure identified to be the best predictor of sudden cardiac death, and a profound indicator of all causes of mortality -- heart rate variability."2

Also in conjunction with the researchers, HeartMath has developed two tests to enable them to conduct pre- and post-measures of their program's effectiveness, called the Personal and Organizational Quality Assessment and the Organizational Coherence Survey. "They measure how people see and feel about their own lives and working environments, and the congruence between their own feeling states and their perceptions of the organization they work in," Kaiser says, noting the ultimate goal of the program is improved corporate health.

"Whether you are looking to reduce accident rates on the job, be more creative or effective, or reduce the cost of health care, when people learn to manage their emotions more effectively it will happen without a doubt," Kaiser says. "Wellness has to be about how we feel, or we won't do what's good for us. If we expect any [wellness] intervention to work, we have to intervene in a balanced system."

How is balance achieved?

This balanced system is achieved through a variety of very simple tools HeartMath employs, Kaiser says. "One is called 'FREEZE-FRAME.' The participant recognizes there is some stress. They are then taught how to disconnect with the stress and then reconnect with a feeling or experiences that make them feel more balanced."

"FREEZE-FRAME is a real-time intervention at the moment you feel stress," says Debbie Bennett, who oversaw the CALPERS wellness program and participated in the HeartMath program there. "It stops the body's normal physiological reaction to stress; you consciously stop that reaction to the stress, focus on your heart rhythms and replace the stress with feelings of appreciation, or caring for something, and you can actually feel your heart rate slow down."

A "lock-in" technique builds on FREEZE-FRAME, and is designed to extend its positive effects over a longer period of time. "You practice it with specific music developed by HeartMath," says Bennett. "I listen when I commute to work, or when I first get up. Again, you focus on your heart rate, then go into a deeper sense of appreciation, love, or caring - positive emotions. Maybe you re-experience a prior situation that triggered those kinds of emotions."

Sound too good to be true? "We had a woman referred to us from Stanford suffering from a supposed life-threatening and nonreversible tachycardia," recalls Kaiser. "The electrical system of her heart was out of control, beating 700 extra beats an hour. She came to our generic weekend program, learned three basic self-care tools, and practiced them regularly. When she came back to Stanford for a one-month follow-up her symptoms had vanished. A month later, she was off meds. There has been no recurrence of the symptoms after more than a year. She had learned to manage her inner world more effectively."

References

1. Barrios-Choplin B, McCraty R, Cryer B. An inner quality approach to reducing stress and improving physical and emotional wellbeing at work. Stress Medicine 1997; 13:193-201.

2. McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, et al. The effects of emotions on short-term heart rate variability using power spectrum analysis. Am J Cardio 1995; 76:1089-1093.