When anxiety causes your brain to jam, use your heart

HeartMath research builds critical link to better learning - featured in "Encounter" journal

Today, the teaching focus is typically on honing children's cognitive skills; rarely does the focus include teaching the key to cognitive performance -- getting the mental, emotional and nervous systems to work together. The Institute of HeartMath® (IHM), a non profit education and research organisation (http://www.heartmath.org) has developed scientifically validated tools and advanced test-taking strategies to help students of all ages refine their cognitive performance skills. In this month's issue of Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, a prominent education journal, the Institute of HeartMath is featured (article entitled:The Heart In Holistic Education) for their educational programs, which are based on new scientific discoveries about the heart and its relationship to emotional stability, cognitive functioning and improved academic performance.

Why Focusing on the Heart Improves Learning

While the era of No Child Left Behind is aimed at improving the nation's education performance standards, the stress and anxiety it is posing on students has some experts concerned about what they consider a dangerous combination – teenagers and exam stress.

Dr. Robert Rees, director of education and humanities for the HeartMath Institute says, "A young person's inability to handle complex and conflicting emotions, can result in increased anger, anxiety, fear and depression and poor academic performance." He goes on to say, "Stress, emotions and hormones create a physiological state that challenges the persons coping mechanisms. Feelings of anxiety and stress can block the ability to remember what they already know."

So why is the heart being linked to better academic performance? Dr. Rollin McCraty, director of research for the HeartMath Institute explains, "Anxiety creates a type of ‘noise' in the brain that disrupts our ability to comprehend and reason. For students, this means their ability to accurately answer questions that require thinking or problem solving is greatly impaired. The student may know the answers to the test questions. They've studied and prepared for weeks, but when faced with the pressure of the actual test and the fear of failing, the memory of what they've learned becomes locked up and they can't recall the information. The intensity of the anxiety is often related to what is at stake."

Dr. McCraty calls this phenomenon "cortical inhibition." He says, "The heart can help neutralize the stress that causes our brain to jam under pressure. The heart puts out a powerful rhythmic signal that the brain responds to. As we experience emotional reactions like anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity, our heart rhythms become incoherent, or more jagged, which interferes with the two-way communication between the heart and brain. When this communication is compromised it affects important aspects of cognitive function. Our reaction speeds are slower, our reasoning and decision making skills are hindered, and our ability to access previously learned information is impaired. We are showing students how they can neutralize the stress and change the heart's rhythmic signal to the brain so that the brain will respond more effectively. This same concept is already being used in military training, police and firefighter training, and corporate environments where stress levels can be overwhelming. Our techniques are proven to work in all these areas and we've seen it work for students too. Some students are jumping grade levels in subjects that they were previously failing."

An educational psychologist at an inner city Phoenix school has worked with learning disabled students using the HeartMath tools. Dr. Eddie Fritz says, "When techniques are presented that students are able to internalise and use to reduce stress, reduce the emotional pain of perceived failure, develop more sensitive communication and relax, it allows them to access what they have already learned so they perform better."

A Case for HeartMath

HeartMath has demonstrated remarkable results, that translate beyond academic performance, of improved attitudes and behaviors that result in increased self-esteem, motivation and self-management. At the Creighton Elementary School District Summer Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, HeartMath tools were used to improve reading proficiency in elementary school special education students. Reading skills were measured by the Wide Range Achievement Test before and after the program. Scores showed an average improvement of 1.5 years' growth in reading proficiency over a 3-week period.

In a Houston, a high school demonstrates the positive impact of the HeartMath program on test-taking. As part of their preparation for the Exit Level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, a group of high school juniors and seniors practiced the HeartMath coherence-building skills while studying the TAAS preparation materials to help raise their test scores. One hundred percent of the seniors in the program passed the TAAS Test, compared with 71% of seniors in a control group that received standard test preparation alone. Of the junior program participants, 63% passed the test as compared to 50% of the junior control group participants.

HeartMath's research led to the development of successful learning-readiness and test-preparation programs which have already helped thousands of students to heighten their learning skills and better understand the learning process and what interrupts it. This October HeartMath is adding another TestEdge™ program to the series, the "TestEdge Interactive CD-Rom." This program is designed for young people in middle school through college and beyond. It will be available for classroom application but is also available for consumers, like parents and those who work with teens and young adults. Dr. Rees says, "We're helping young people learn how to get their brain, heart and nervous system all working in accord instead of at cross-purposes. This physiological coherence is what we call ‘being in-sync,' and our research shows coherence is key to becoming a better learner."

HeartMath programs have been proven to work for all types of people and they have more than a decade of research demonstrating positive results in children in a wide range of grade, socio-economic and emotional levels.

To learn more about the Institute of HeartMath's research, case studies and their "TestEdge" programs go to their website at http://www.heartmath.org or call (866) 221-6339. For a review copy of the TestEdge Interactive CD-Rom, a reprint of the Encounter article, "The Heart in Holistic Education" or graphics related to this story and any other HeartMath materials or interviews, contact Gabriella Boehmer at (831) 338-8710 or gboehmer@heartmath.org.

See Graphic Below Pre and Post TestEdge:

HeartMath's TestEdge Programs dramatically improve attitudes and classroom behaviors. As the graph below illustrates, the emotion-refocusing tools taught in TestEdge allow students to effectively deal with psychological stress and its symptoms.

Psychological Improvements in High School Seniors Using TestEdge

Significant reductions in symptoms of psychological distress (Brief Symptom Inventory) experienced by TestEdge trained students from pre-to post-training, as compared to students in an untrained control group. Asterisks denote degree of significant differences between the two groups.*1p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

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