Being in a car on roads in the UK can be stressful. Countless factors can often seem designed to drive us up the wall – congestion, speed cameras, middle lane-hoggers, tailgaters, even the price of fuel.
Stress can make people do some crazy things. Ever experienced ‘the red mist’? All it takes is a rude gesture from another motorist to set you off. It’s not the safest frame of mind to be in when behind the wheel of a car. It makes people irrational and it’s also really tiring – a stressful journey takes a lot more out of a driver.
With all the emphasis on duty of care in the fleet industry, why don’t fleets take steps to tackle stress on the road? There are plenty of driver training courses that teach everything from road positioning to skid control, but will any of that stop the red mist from descending?
Such questions have been asked by training provider Drive & Survive. As a result, it has teamed up with Hunter Kane, UK licensee of the relaxation and performance-enhancing techniques taught by an American company, HeartMath.
The resultant product, launched this month, is a day-long course that offers a morning seminar on HeartMath and an afternoon on-road driver training session.
HeartMath involves deep breathing, happy thoughts and wailing music – you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as some kind of New Age alternative therapy. But the company’s techniques have roots in medical science and it has some impressive results to back up its claims.
Steve Johnson, of Drive & Survive, believes the HeartMath techniques could help avoid road rage incidents and, in the longer term, keep drivers healthier by reducing their overall stress levels. The techniques can be used in the car – a couple of minutes while stuck in traffic could mean the difference between agitation and calm.
THE fundamentals of HeartMath lie in the communication between the brain and the heart.
Short-term responses to stimuli are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline-releasing reaction to danger.
This reflex has its roots in early man’s need to react instantly to danger, but today it can make sane, rational people to completely irrational things as an instant response to stress or danger. Think of the sportsman, caught up in the moment of the game, who foolishly lashes out at an opponent, or the mild-mannered colleague who turns into a raging maniac if someone cuts him up on the road.
Long-term responses are controlled by the hormonal system, which affects and is affected by your emotions.
If you’re in a positive frame of mind, you’ll be high in the hormone DHEA. If you’re feeling negative, you’ll be high in DHEA’s antithesis, cortisol.
HEART RATE VARIABILITY
HEART rate variability (HRV) measures the beat-to-beat changes in the heart. No one’s heartbeat is completely regular – the gaps between each beat change and it’s the amount they change by that is important. If you’re relaxed, the rate of change is relatively high but if you’re running a high level of adrenaline, the change will be much slower.
Depending on the emotional state, the HRV pattern given off by the heart will either be chaotic, when there are negative emotions, or stable – ‘coherent’ – when a person is happy. The rhythms of the heart, whether chaotic or coherent, are sent to the brain via the spinal nerve and can dramatically affect the operation of the brain system.
THE brain is organised into three levels of control. The first level controls reflexes and instinctive reactions such as hormones, respiration and so on. We have very little control over this section of the brain.
The second level controls fear, anger, the maternal instinct, anxiety etc. We have a limited level of control over this.
It’s the third level of the brain that we have the most control over. It deals with things like fine perception, the differentiation of thoughts and feelings, self reflection and problem resolution.
If a chaotic charge is given off by the heart, control of the third level of the brain is inhibited, giving us less rational control over it. This is why when we’re particularly wound up, we can ‘lose it’ and act emotionally, in a way that we wouldn’t if given time to think about it.
Techniques for a happy heart
USING its understanding of the communication between the heart and brain, Heart Math claims to have developed techniques to control it.
The techniques are designed to generate ‘HRV coherence’ through controlled breathing and positive thought, and the effectiveness can be monitored via a computer programme. If your brain is happy and not pumping out adrenaline, the heart is more relaxed and the HRV more coherent.
In the interests of journalistic research, I had a go. A sensor was clipped to my ear which monitors my heartbeat and HRV. Through this information, the software can show me HRV pattern and the level of coherence in the three levels of my brain, as well as the resonance of the electric charge given off by the heart. This charge is known by HeartMath as Power Spectral Density – think of it as the same as ‘chi’ in martial arts.
To start with, my base levels were monitored. Frustratingly for this article, my natural levels were already high – to the point of rarity, according to Chris Sawicki, Hunter Kane’s director.
My HRV pattern was far from chaotic, although that started to change when Sawicki suggested I sing. That terrifying prospect set my adrenaline flowing, something the sensor picked up on and displayed on the screen. At this point, Sawicki admitted he had only said this to get a reaction, and things returned to their previous state.
The first technique involved breathing in for five seconds and out for another five, while focusing on the area around the heart and recalling how I felt at a particularly happy time of my life. This is likely to be pretty subjective – I let my mind drift back to an Iron Maiden gig. The aim of the technique is to reduce the flow of adrenaline and increase the flow of DHEA.
It seemed to work. Shortly after adopting the technique, the computer screen showed a much smoother HRV signal and a higher level of coherence.
Sawicki then demonstrated a further technique known as ‘heart lock-in’, essentially an extension of the first technique, but set to music specially written for HeartMath.
The technique is designed for use four times a week for 12 minutes at a time, which according to Sawicki has proven to be the optimum amount for long-term benefits.
Personally, I found the music quite annoying, but Sawicki said any music that makes you happy could be used instead. In any case, after five minutes of continuous deep breathing and focusing on positive memories I felt as stress-free as I have done for a while.
The benefit to your drivers
SAWICKI admits that the techniques, when explained, do sound like alternative therapy and could put some people off.
But he points out the firm base in medical science, and has numerous examples of how HeartMath has helped people overcome stress and strain.
Using the HeartMath technique over a longer period can, the firm claims, increase production, save time and energy through more effective decisions and even improve the health of your heart and immune system. It also claims that regular use will build emotional responsiveness and allow users to ‘take control of their life’.
Converts include Ryder Cup golf captain Ian Woosnam, who claims his game has improved and his general alertness changed vastly since he started practicing the HeartMath techniques.
It has also proved a hit in the world of education. Schools that have adopted the technique have seen exam results improve amongst students, while pupils with ADHD that practised the method found their concentration levels soared.
Large businesses have taken advantage of the scheme. Happy customers who have seen reductions in staff tiredness and increases in productivity include Hewlett-Packard and BP.
‘The results speak for themselves,’ Sawicki says. ‘Stress is a 200,000-year-old mechanism designed to keep us alive but today it kicks in often inappropriately.’
So if your drivers suffer from stress behind the wheel, perhaps all they need are a few deep breaths.
Drive & Survive’s Steve Johnson warns: ‘This course won’t be for everyone. It’s for people that have been picked up as needing this kind of thing for a specific reason.
‘It’s about making people calm so they can make rational judgements and be safer on the road. It’s all about the mental approach, and it doesn’t stop when you closed the car door – it carries on into the workplace with you.’