Vail Symposium series focuses on stress management |

Vail Symposium series focuses on stress management

Vail Symposium series focused on heart coherence and creativity

Bruce Cryer, cofounder of HeartMath, gave a series of workshops on dealing with stress and enhancing creativity Sept. 14-15 as part of the Vail Symposium.
Kimberly Nicoletti/Special to the Daily

When we get stressed, even if it’s as minor as an email, it results in a cascade of 1,400 biochemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, designed to help us deal with a life-or-death threat. The problem is most stressors aren’t life or death, but the chemicals they release may be; they contribute to all kinds of conditions, from heart disease, cancer and diabetes to obesity and Alzheimer’s. The half-life of many of these chemicals, like cortisol, lasts six to eight hours, which is pretty significant.

“They age you and make it hard to sleep,” said Bruce Cryer, cofounder of HeartMath, a system of scientifically validated tools, techniques and behaviors to reduce stress, enhance performance, increase creativity and improve overall well-being.

Cryer presented a series of workshops Sept. 14-15 as part of the Vail Symposium’s consciousness series. On Sept. 14 at Donovan Pavilion, he reviewed tools to help people build adaptability, resilience and well-being in the face of ongoing uncertainty, which translates to stress. On Sept. 15, he taught a morning workshop on stress and techniques to deal with it, then led an afternoon session on unleashing creativity at Eagle River Presbyterian Church.

He began the workshop on Sept. 15 with a YouTube video called, “You see the world through how you feel,” which depicts cityscapes through the lens of stress followed by the same scenes as classical music lends a calm atmosphere to the previously perceived madness. His point: our experiences and perceptions affect how we feel.

Cryer defined stress as an “emotional mismatch between expectations and reality,” which becomes problematic when it’s chronic, like the layers of stress we’ve collectively experienced in the past two years with the pandemic, inflation, climate change and conflicts.

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He reviewed studies as far back as WWII that showed how soldiers, when faced with challenges, reach peak efficiency, but as the difficulty stretches over time, hyper reactions lead to emotional exhaustion, which ultimately results in breakdown. He also went over Elizabeth Kübler Ross’ process of shock and recovery, which journeys through emotions like anger, fear and blame, goes into resistance then worry, bottoms out at depression and feelings of loss of control, and ultimately rises to exploration.

“You can get stuck in depression,” he said, “but if you’re willing to stay with life and move on, you go on to exploration.”

And he knows about moving through difficulty. After about a dozen years of being the CEO of HeartMath, he got cancer, got divorced, went through the death of a parent and battled a staph infection after hip replacement surgery. He ended up leaving his job and focusing on his creativity, or what makes his heart sing.

“Whenever you’re doing things that make your heart sing, it benefits your health and well-being,” he said during the afternoon session on creativity. “One of the fundamental things that needs to shift is how we associate creativity with artistic expression. Creativity is not just artistic expression. A relationship can be artistic, work can be artistic, family can be artistic. We are all made of creative energy. This energy inside us can play out in all different ways.”

But in order to be as creative as possible, it’s important to manage stress. That’s where heart meditation comes in.

During the morning session, Cryer encouraged participants to focus attention around their heart area, breathing in for 5 seconds and breathing out for 5 seconds while imagining the breath moving through the heart.

“This moves you into a more balanced state,” Cryer said, adding that it helps maintain a neutral stance in any situation. “To me, we’re at a time where people are at their worst — myself included, so cut yourself some slack and cut others some slack. It’s rough now. Stay neutral. You don’t know where people are coming from or what they’ve experienced … we have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives. Then we judge them, and then we pay the price (through emotions like anger, which releases stress chemicals),” he said.

After this simple exercise, he led people to once again focus on heart breathing while also thinking about, and feeling, what they appreciate.

“Just start appreciating what’s around you, and you’re restoring your system,” he said. “Appreciation is the lever that gets you out of feeling small and being stuck.”

He encouraged people to ask, while in the middle of a stressful situation, “what can I appreciate now?”

This simple act releases about 1,400 feel-good, beneficial biochemicals like DHEA, an anti-aging and vitality hormone, he said.

“It’s the ultimate stealth tool to leverage your awareness of your heart,” he said. “As you practice peace, compassion and gratitude, you start to build circuitry that helps you live on the vitality side. … That’s why people say you look good after vacation, because you’re making more DHEA.”

In the ’90s, HeartMath measured the heart rate variability of hundreds of people, first asking them to think about something frustrating and then asking them to think about appreciation for 3 minutes each. Frustration showed chaotic heart rate patterns, while appreciation showed “coherence,” or a smooth, flowing rhythm. Further studies showed how heart rate affects the brain.

The effects of thinking about frustration (top) as opposed to thinking about gratitude and appreciation (bottom graph).
Courtesy photo

“Chaotic patterns are not isolated to the heart; they are being distributed to every cell in your body,” he said. “Incoherence inhibits brain function.”

And, as it turns out, the heart is about 60 times stronger in amplitude than the electric signal of the brain, and its magnetic dimension is over 100 times stronger than the brain; Cryer said the heart’s electromagnetic energy extends several feet beyond the body. That’s why you feel certain good or bad vibes from people.

“What we put out matters, whether it’s to our pets, our spouses or our plants,” he said. “You sense it in people. So ask yourself: How can I bring more joy and be more compassionate?”

He brought this sense of vital energy into the afternoon session, which was much more experiential; participants danced and wrote letters from different parts of the self, including fear and delight.

He talked about six catalysts for amplifying creative energy: being mindful through heart awareness, movement and dance, nature, playfulness, artistic expression and music.

“Playfulness is the wonder drug of creativity,” he said. “And creativity is a natural high for our brain. Whatever we love doing helps our brain build new connections.”

Coming this week: Purposeful Living

The Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living, Vail Symposium and Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging at the University of Denver are co-hosting a three-day “Purposeful Living Experience” featuring best-selling authors Richard Leider and Chip Conley. This includes two days in Vail and one day in Denver, all focused on various aspects of purposeful living. Tickets can be purchased separately for each event.

  • 6-7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards: “Unlocking Your Purpose at Any Age” with Richard Leider and Chip Conley
  • 9 -11:30 a.m. Sept. 28 workshop at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards: “The Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself to Live Purposefully” with Richard Leider and Chip Conley
  • September 29, 10:30 a.m. to noon Sept. 29 in Denver at the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging: “The Path of Purposeful Aging” with Richard Leider

Tickets: $25; $10 for Vail Resort employees and free for Eagle County teachers and students Sept. 27; $40 for Sept. 28, free Sept. 29.

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