Californian researchers have developed a technique that aims to de-stress in seconds. Just remember your last cuddle. By Barbara Rowlands
With the British working the longest hours in Europe and so many companies being downsized, stress management courses are rapidly becoming a growth industry.

But the latest de-stressing technique, developed in California, claims to be different from the conventional approach. Researchers say the technique can be used to instantly "smooth down" jagged heart rhythms, thereby preventing the release of the stress hormones, cortisone and adrenaline, which weaken the immune system and contribute to coronary heart disease.

Called, in true Californian style, Inner Quality Management, the programme has been developed by the Institute of HeartMath, a non-profit-making company based in Boulder Creek. Set up six years ago, the company has so far trained 40,000 American workers, including personnel in four branches of the US military, and it is developing links with UK companies.

HeartMath trainers teach a "fast-track" relaxation technique called Freeze- Frame, which can be used in the heat of the moment - in a confrontation with the boss, for example. The first step in a stressful situation, they say, is to recognise the stress, focus on the heart and recall something you care about: cuddling the children, walking in the countryside or a happy memory. This approach differs from standard stress management techniques in that it focuses on positive feeling rather than positive thoughts, says Dr Alan Watkins, lecturer in medicine at the University of Southampton and HeartMath's main representative in Britain.

"It's about moving attention to the heart and getting away from the mind," he says. "Even if you just shift attention to the centre of your chest, the heartbeat starts to change. Then you re-experience a positive emotion - the feeling, not the thinking.

You don't visualise yourself on a gorgeous beach; you remember what it felt like to be on that beach."

A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology by Dr Watkins and other HeartMath researchers, in collaboration with scientists at Stamford University, showed that positive emotions encouraged by the Freeze-Frame technique dampen down the autonomic nervous system, which sends messages from the brain to the heart, and which governs involuntary actions such as sweating and breathing. The nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the organs, including the heart, to shift into high gear to meet an emergency; and the parasympathetic, which slows the heart down after the emergency has passed. While stress causes these two systems to work in opposition, resulting in an erratic heart rhythm, positive emotions have been found to make them more harmonious.

"The two arms of the autonomic nervous system are fighting each other when someone is angry or frustrated and Freeze-Frame encourages them to work in unison," says Dr Watkins. How emotions affect the working of these two systems, he explains, can be measured by observing a person's heart rate variability, a measure of beat-to-beat changes taken across several minutes which is part of the HeartMath programme. The smoother and more ordered the reading, the less risk there is of a sudden heart attack.

Conversely, the more jagged, the higher the peaks and troughs and the greater the risk, despite the fact that the pulse rate might be normal.

HeartMath trainers recently piloted the programme with some British guinea pigs: a small group of sales and personnel managers from Shell and the computer company Hewlett-Packard. It took place in a plush hotel in Aldermaston, Berkshire, and there was no doubting the huggy-feely California touch, which could cause the most eager and stressed-out British executive to wince. The Brits were presented with a box bulging with handouts: a video, book and tinkly muzak "Heartzone" tape, which HeartMath researchers claim can increase antibodies in the immune system by 50 per cent by just listening to it in the background.

But there is nothing more likely to convince the unbeliever than watching his or her own frenzied heartbeat smooth into firm, even peaks after a few seconds of Freeze-Framing. The Brits eagerly wired themselves up and watched, amazed, as their jagged beats assumed a more even pattern of peaks and troughs.

Marilyn Hedley, head of outplacement activities at Shell, who says she is inured to new stress packages, has nevertheless agreed to pilot the course with Shell managers in November. She hopes they will follow in the footsteps of employees at Motorola in the United States. In a recent study, HeartMath scientists looked at a group of executives, engineers and factory workers from the company and monitored them before the IQM training and at three- and six-month intervals afterwards.

At the start of the study, 26 per cent had high blood pressure, but after six months all the participants had normal blood pressure readings. There was also a 36 per cent reduction in the six common stress symptoms - headaches, heartburn, indigestion, sleeplessness, palpitations and trembling. Just under a third said they were more contented than before, 14 per cent said they were happier, 67 per cent said they had more energy and vitality and 48 per cent reported "greater personal and professional fulfilment". The institute is now training a further 600 Motorola employees.

The Institute of HeartMath can be contacted at PO Box 1463, 14700 West Park Avenue, Boulder Creek, California, 95006. HeartMath's British contact, Dr Alan Watkins, can be reached on 01703 794594.