Mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are designed to teach individuals how to focus on the present. Many individuals with anxiety and depression have been able to significantly reduce their symptoms by adopting mindfulness breathing exercises (MBE) and other relaxation techniques and improve their level emotional arousal. The goal of mindfulness is to allow people to gain control over their feelings through acceptance. Calming behaviors allow people to replace reactive emotional responses with more adaptive and constructive methods. Additionally, mindfulness positively affects the physiological responses caused by stress, such as high blood pressure and heart rate.
One indicator of healthy functioning is heart rate variability (HRV), which measures the time between heart beats. Existing research has shown that high HRV can indicate a low stress response and better physiological and psychological well-being. The techniques used in mindfulness based therapies have even been proven to reduce severe symptoms of anxiety in people with agoraphobia, panic problems, social phobia and even suicidal thoughts. But until recently, few studies have examined the effects of MBE and mindfulness on HRV directly.
To look more closely at this relationship, Jan M. Burg of the Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany recently led a study examining 23 college students. The students had learned basic mindfulness techniques and MBE. For her study, Burg assessed the HRV of each participant as they engaged in a brief session of MBE. She found that the participants that were most adept at MBE had the highest levels of HRV. This finding supports the theory that mindfulness positively affects physiological responses. Burg believes that the results of her study demonstrate that HRV is an important component of emotional self-regulation, and further, that mindfulness techniques such as MBE help increase HRV. She added, “Thus, the results suggest that HRV is a physiological correlate of a mindful state.” In sum, Burg believes that this study highlights the importance of being in a mindful state of mind in order to achieve and maintain psychological and physiological well-being.
Burg, J. M., Wolf, O. T., Michalak, J. (2012). Mindfulness as self-regulated attention: Associations with heart rate variability. Swiss Journal of Psychology71.3: 135-139.
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