This holiday season is off to an evocative start.
Thanksgiving brings up complex thoughts and feelings as we reflect on the fairytale version of the first Thanksgiving and the disturbing reality of what was done to indigenous people and their land. Gathering with family on the other end of the political spectrum has the real potential for heart-wrenching communication breakdown. Sweet memories of childhood experiences mingle with idealized projections of the way holidays should be held, with mixed results.
This year, I joined so many others in releasing attachments to how Thanksgiving would be and brought myself to accept the real possibility of being by myself, pending the result of a Covid test. This uniquely poignant time allowed me to touch in to the most elemental and sacred aspect of this annual tradition: To express gratitude for that which we receive, for that which was grown and harvested, and for all that goes into the miracle of food—sun, rain, soil and all of the beings, seen and unseen, who participate in this process. Gratitude for the great gift of being alive, and for what becomes possible when we align ourselves with gratitude as a guiding star.
A potent psycho-social-physiological alchemy is induced by the experience of feeling gratitude and appreciation. I love psycho-social-physiological medicinal alchemy, especially at a moment when we as a collective are stressed, isolated, traumatized, divided and bereft. As we go forward and meet the challenges, the more tools we have to harmonize our internal and interpersonal states, the better.
The alchemical state to which I am referring is a little-known reality called “coherence”: a state in which messages from the brain to the heart and from the heart to the brain allow for “heart rate variability,” or the healthy variability in the timing between heart beats, to be optimized. As this happens, the amygdala, that part of the brain scanning for threats and responsible for the emotional triggering that makes connecting and effective problem solving more challenging, is quieted. A growing body of research is illuminating the way in which messages from the heart, carried by the vagus nerve, affect the brain. In the coherent state, cognitive processes like attention, memory, perceptual sensitivity and emotional processing are all sharpened. Higher cognitive functions, like effective communication and problem solving, improve. Kids coached in “getting into coherence” do better on tests. Athletes who get into this state perform at a higher level. People working together achieve more in this state, and communication flows.
How can we literally shift our hearts and minds into this state of coherence? It is simple, really. Although there are different methods, I like one described by HeartMath, an organization devoted to studying and amplifying this effect: Place your attention in the center of your chest, bring about a positive emotion (imagine the face of a loved one, a beloved pet, or a time you felt really happy), and breathe in to the count of five, and out to five. This works, but it can also be hard to sustain rhythmic breathing. Studies show it is just as effective to bring and keep your attention on gratitude, appreciation or compassion. Importantly, while the vagus nerve is active during the relaxation response, relaxation alone doesn’t induce the coherent state. Feeling gratitude, however, either spontaneously or intentionally, does.
In this time of deep social divides and unrest, tremendous stress and thwarted desires to touch, hug and otherwise physically connect, I think about how we can create sanctuary for ourselves and each other and build bridges across those divides. I am curious about the neuroscience showing differences in the size and activity of certain parts of the brain in those who identify as “liberal” and “conservative. Although it is not possible to tease out cause and effect versus associations, it has been found in functional neuroanatomy studies that conservative people have more active amygdalas, which may make them susceptible to perceiving threats and reacting from a place of fear. People who identify as liberal have more active anterior cingulate cortices, which is a part of the brain that monitors uncertainty and conflict, which may explain why liberals have a greater tolerance for these states. Knowing this helps move me to compassion in considering how challenging it would feel to be more vulnerable to threat appraisal and the fight-or-flight response. Knowing that compassion and appreciation quiets my own amygdala and keeps me open to connection helps me to cultivate this important skill. Where it gets really interesting, I find, is how shifting our internal state to one of coherence affects the people around us.
As we bring our individual systems—heart, neurological, endocrine, respiratory and cognitive—into coherence, we shift the electromagnetic field around us and create synchronous shifts in those around us. This is called social coherence, and it holds true for couples, coworkers, athletic teams, small groups and organizations. As individuals in social connection with each other regulate their emotions, shift heartbeat variability into coherence through gratitude practice, timed breathing or biofeedback, people can actually become “entrained” with one another, meaning their heart rhythms become somewhat synchronous. In this electrochemically harmonized state, studies show that communication, teamwork and the quality of relationships are positively affected.
As it turned out, I did not receive my Covid test result until late in the day on Thanksgiving. I had the precious experience of a quiet, spacious day out on the trail, immersed in gratitude for the beauty of the land, for the familiar presence of beloved oaks, and for all of the people in my life with whom I share loving connections. The next day, reunited with my children, we shared another day dedicated to expressing gratitude for each other, for their ability to safely be with their grandparents on Thanksgiving, for the abundance in our lives, and for the delicious food we prepared together. I even had an opportunity to put my research on gratitude and coherence into practice when one of my daughters slipped into a state of intense frustration, anger and reactivity. She and I found our way to sitting quietly, focusing on our breath, on a warm feeling in our chest, and then on the love and appreciation we felt for each other. We moved back into connection and communication.
We were both truly grateful.
Anna O’Malley, M.D., works with the Coastal Health Alliance and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden