Mitigate the Stress Response with a Hand on Your Heart

Linda Graham, MFT and author of Bouncing Back:  Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, shares a highly effective stress relieving exercise that encourages the release of oxytocin, the brain’s antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol.

Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering researcher in the behavioral science of positive psychology, discovered that the neurochemistry of two people can sync up when they are:

  • In physical proximity to each other
  • making eye contact
  • sharing a positive emotional experience
  • experiencing a mutual care and concern for each other

The neurochemical synchrony generates a felt sense of shared resonance that can be characterized as a moment of love, certainly a state of safety.

A likely significant contributor to the neurochemical synchrony is the release of oxytocin, the brain’s hormone of safety and trust, bonding and belonging, of calm and connect.

Besides doing my best to attune to and empathize with my clients’ emotional states and regulate their nervous system through a calming entrainment with my own, I also intentionally teach them a tool that helps them use the memory of a safe resonant relationships (which may be with me) to activate the release of oxytocin – the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol – to help them generate the feelings of safety and trust, love and belonging that can be a powerful support to their own healing and growth.

The “Hand on the Heart” exercise is one of the very first exercises I always teach my clients as a powerful stress reliever.

HAND ON THE HEART

Simply place your own hand on your own heart, breathe gently, softly, deeply into your heart center.  If you wish, breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness into your heart center.  Then remember one moment, just one moment, when you felt safe, loved and cherished by another human being.  Not the entire relationship, just one moment.  This could be a partner or child, a friend or therapist or teacher; it could be a spiritual figure; it could be a pet.  As you remember this moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished, let yourself feel the feeling of that moment, let the feeling wash through your body, and let yourself stay there for 20 or 30 seconds.

When we do this exercise, the warm, safe touch of our hand on our heart center begins to activate the release of oxytocin, the brain’s hormone of safety and trust, bonding and belonging, calm and connect.  Warm, safe touch anywhere that feels comfortable on our body can release the oxytocin, but there are neural cells around the heart that communicate directly with the brain and more quickly begin the activation of the release.

Breathing deeply into the heart center activates the calming branch of the nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, and our body begins to relax.  Breathing a sense of safety or ease or goodness or any positive emotion into the heart center puts the brakes on our very fast, very automatic survival responses of fight-flight-freeze.  Remembering a moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished with someone really activates the release of the oxytocin.  Blood pressure goes down, heart rate stabilizes; this technique is powerful enough to calm down a panic attack in less than a minute.

I suggest to my clients that they practice “Hand on the Heart” ANY time they experience a startle or an upset, to be able to back out of a difficult emotional reaction before it hijacks them.  Or even just to practice it to train the brain to create this new response to any difficult moment even before the moment happens.

Research has shown, oxytocin flowing through the body-brain can pre-empt the stress response altogether.