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Students learn how HeartMath adds technology to subtract stress

Students learn how HeartMath adds technology to subtract stress

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It’s too bad HeartMath wasn’t around when new math was foisted upon students in the 1950s, sending their tickers into spasms, because it could have eased their stress over that new-fangled idea.

Now, new math is old hat, dispatched as rudely as Oddjob was when James Bond electrified his bowler in “Goldfinger.”

HeartMath has emerged as one of the next big things in alternative health to control stress, students from the Health Science Academy in La Crosse learned Friday from Dr. Jill McMullen.

McMullen, medical director of the Gundersen Tomah Clinic, was an especially fitting tutor because she used the technique in a huge way to relieve stress when sprinkler pipes froze, burst and flooded the clinic Jan. 15.

The seniors from several local high schools learned about nontraditional medical treatments during an Alternative Healing Lab at the Gundersen Integrated Center for Education. Sessions featured not only HeartMath but also yoga, aromatherapy, massage therapy and acupuncture, for which some students became pincushions.

HeartMath, a registered trademark of the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, Colo., aims to help people cope with the fight-or-flight response. The heart’s electrical impulses, which are stronger than those emanating from the brain, trigger the impulse to flee, McMullen said.

Teaching the method employs technological devices such as the iPhone and iPad, a handheld device or a computer with a sensor attached to the ear to teach people to tame their hearts. After learning the breathing and focusing technique, they can practice it with or without the technology.

“HeartMath helps get the thinking part of the brain to think again, when the heart has settled down,” she said.

It can help anyone cope with stress but is particularly helpful for those in tension-filled professions, such as police officers, first responders, elite athletes and performers, McMullen said.

“They can use it before, during and after” being involved in volatile situations, she told the students.

For example, she said, police officers who are involved in a shooting will experience adrenaline rushes that can send their heart rates skyrocketing, she said.

If they don’t bring the rate under control, it will continue throughout their shifts and beyond, she said.

“If we don’t tend to this part of our physiology, heart stress can last for hours,” she said.

“If you can work on practicing the technique, if you are in a high-stress situation, it is easier to reset,” choosing a relaxed approach instead of a frantic one, McMullen said.

McMullen used HeartMath to calm herself as water continued to gush out of the Tomah clinic door during the lag after shutting off the water, she said.

As police and firefighters told her the situation was grim and getting grimmer, they were taken aback as she repeated her mantra that everything would be OK, she said.

The clinic was damaged so severely that the two weeks Gundersen officials expected repairs to take expanded first to a month, and now the clinic isn’t expected to open until late April.

The fight-or-flight instinct tempted some students to flee from being demonstrators during the acupuncture sessions, but several hesitantly extended their hands for acupuncturist Frank Fusheng Lan, who practices at the Center for Health and Healing at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare’s Onalaska Clinic,

“Anybody want to try,” Lan asked a group of six students, after explaining how acupuncture and manipulating pressure points can relieve headaches, facial palsy, back pain, joint pain and other maladies without the use of drugs.

Contorted faces and shrinking body language telegraphed their initial responses, as Lan said encouragingly, “It’s not going to hurt — no pain.”

“No pain,” echoed Aaron Watt, a senior at Aquinas High School who volunteered, saying, “And no fear, either.”

Lan urged Watt to relax as he prepped the needle.

“Ow,” Watt said at the initial prick, before adding, “OK, you’re good. … Oh, my hand’s getting numb.”

A few seconds later, Watt said, “It doesn’t hurt anymore. This is really relaxing in my hand.”

As other students peppered him with questions about whether it hurt, he said, “Not really. … That was cool. I recommend it.”

Still, a mixed chorus of “noooooooo” responded to Lan’s request for another guinea pig until Logan High School senior Kristy Her said, “I want to try, but I’m really scared. I feel like I’d start crying.”

Nonetheless, she advanced to the hot seat, saying nervously as she covered part of her face, “I have really small hands.”

As Lan lanced the Logan High School senior, Her acknowledged after the first stick, “It’s not that bad. It’s just like pressure.”

As Lan pushed the needle slightly deeper, Her winced and said, “Yeah — that’s a little hurt. … I feel like it’s gonna go straight through,” then, “My fingers are definitely numb. I’m trying to pick up my hand now,” to no avail.

After Lan removed the needle, Her said with a relieved sigh, “I’m alive.”

Health Science Academy director Annette O’Hern, who dismissed taunts that she shouldn’t let students do anything she wouldn’t do, refused to take a hit for the team.

The academy, which takes place at the Health Science Center on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus, is a two-year program that prepares high school juniors and seniors for education and careers in the health science industry.

The alternative medicine foray was a new experience for the students, who also are studying global issues, O’Hern said.

“As we look globally, we see alternative methods of medicine in other countries,” she said.

“We all know doctors and nurses, but we might not think of exercise physiology or acupuncture in health care,” O’Hern said.

McMullen’s advice to the seniors as they ponder higher education was simple: “Major in what you love” in pursuing a career. “You won’t have a chance to do that later in life.”

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