Moving toward coherence

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Recently I have been exploring the complex issue of emotions in this column. From the response I've gotten from readers, this is indeed a perplexing issue for many.

One guy wrote: "So what am I supposed to do? My wife is always telling me I have an 'anger management problem' and that I should be reading your column. I read today's on destructive emotions, and now I am more confused. Am I supposed to let it all hang out? Or should I zip it? And if I do that, won't I get sick? Got any advice, Doc?"

If it were just a matter of good advice, my reader would be playing golf instead of e-mailing me ... and I would be out of a job. There is, after all, lots of advice flying about out there.

How many times have we been told--by Celine Dion for one--to "follow your heart."

Any of us who have followed that advice knows this may not necessarily be the best way to go. I have a painting that I can't display in polite company because I followed that recommendation one night at an art auction.

And then there is the old saw: "Think happy thoughts!" My grandmother was big on that one, believing ferverently in the power of positive thinking. If it were that easy, I would be Ronald McDonald.

I decided to consult biofeedback specialist Tina Lerner to see if she had any fresh insights on this issue of "destructive emotions" and what we can do about them. "Develop something called 'heart rate coherence,'" was her advice.

She explains further: "When the heart is relaxed, the pulse becomes ordered and harmonious--coherent--and this relaxed pulse wave is picked up by the central nervous system, which responds by informing the brain it is appropriate to move into a more 'parasympathetic tone'-- out of flight-or-fight."

Lerner contends that our natural state is to be in "coherence," the state where we can easily recover from agitated, "destructive" emotional states and return to that calm, ordered heartbeat. Incoherence is the state we feel when we are enraged, and it is not our natural state. Think of young children, unspoiled by the wear and tear of life. They can be hurt and upset one moment and laughing the next. They are naturally resilient, flexible.

So what happens to us?

"As we get older, we tend to become so comfortable with being agitated that we forget what it is like to be relaxed," states Lerner. "We become set in arousal. And when we relax into coherence, we fail to even recognize it."

Before this all became too theoretical for me (meaning "woo-woo"), I asked Lerner to hook me up. When she did, the proof was in the computer screen.

All of the charts showed me to be in a state of mild heart rate incoherence. When she instructed me to breathe deeply and to focus on positive thoughts, I observed a definite change to a more ordered and calm heart rate coherence pattern. I was moving into the "relaxation response." And let me tell you, it felt good.

Happy thoughts did all that? Maybe my dear positive-thinking grandmother was right after all.

But enough about me, back to my advice-seeking reader. He is probably wondering how he is supposed to manage this thing called "heart rate coherence."

My advice? Practice patience. I'm out of space for today, but I will be back next week with some interesting suggestions.

And here is some really good advice: Follow your heart ... and think happy thoughts.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at

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