Biometric research validates POWER program

In 2018, Center for Council began training roughly 200 police and correctional officers in POWERPeace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience. Along with Jared Seide and LT Rich Goerling, I helped design POWER to be an intensive 12-week, nationally certified course aimed to support first responders’ physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Both sworn and non-sworn participants learn breathing and meditation, the science behind the autonomic response to stress, practices to support physical wellness, the importance of gratitude, cognitive approaches that reduce bias, and how cultivating a sense of awe improves adaptability to change and fosters connection. The underpinning of the entire program is the practice of council, which participants learn to self-facilitate weekly in small huddles of 5-6 people.

After training officers in Los Angeles (LAPD and the Federal Bureau of Prisons), we subsequently trained a cohort of participants in Florida at the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office (JSO). In both the LAPD and JSO cohorts, we had pre- and post-psychosocial surveys that demonstrated statistically significant shifts in empathy, mindfulness, perceptions of stress and anger. Additionally, LAPD officers were invited back for a day to reflect on the program and its impact on their personal health, relationships (both at home and on the force), and their ability to relate to the communities they serve.

“My blood pressure reduced…and I stopped taking medication.”

Among the things the LAPD officers reported were comments like this, as well as reduction in chronic headaches, better sleep, reduced gastrointestinal issues, and resolution of heart dysrhythmias. As I heard them share these changes in their physical health, I became curious whether we might find ways to add biometric measurements to the psychosocial surveys. The changes they described are indicative of improved autonomic regulation, and I wanted to find an easily obtained, reproducible method of testing this. In the past, researchers have used cortisol sampling as well as other markers of inflammation in blood tests, but while these are great in a lab setting, I knew they were impractical in the field. During my fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the Andrew Weil Center in Tucson, Arizona, I was introduced to HeartMath, and became trained as a HeartMath Interventions Provider. Recording a person’s heart rate variability is a non-invasive window into the balance of their autonomic nervous system.

Heart Rate Variability

According to Dr. Rollin McCraty (director of research at HeartMath), our hearts are not metronomes. Each interval between beats varies: sometimes your heart shifts from one beat to the next quickly, other times more slowly. Over a minute your average heart rate might be 70, but during that minute the time between neighboring beats varies. This is known as “heart rate variability” (HRV), and the bigger the variation (the faster it can change and the bigger the difference between fastest and slowest), the healthier you are. HRV is a function of balance in the autonomic nervous system: you can think of effective balance being the ability to raise heart rate and respond to crisis quickly when threatened, and conversely to shut off this response when the threat goes away. Folks with low HRV are at increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, dementia, and death from all causes. And, practices that improve HRV have been shown to reduce these risks. What we were hearing from the officers who participated in POWER was that their health was improving in ways that seemed to reflect improved autonomic health, and so I began to wonder whether measurement of their HRV before and after the POWER training would show this.

Research with Cal State University, San Marcos

In partnership with Dr. Ranjeeta Basu at CSUSM, I designed a protocol to measure HRV in participants along with the psychosocial surveys in a POWER training we did with law enforcement from four campus police: CSUSM, UCSD, Palomar and Mira Costa colleges. The results of this data have been submitted for peer review and publication, but I’ll share here the take-home points of that research which really add a whole new dimension to how we understand the value of the POWER program.

Mindfulness, Empathy, and Social Connection

Similar to the findings from LAPD and JSO, our CSUSM cohort showed statistically significant shifts in mindfulness and empathy. These are often difficult dials to move in interventions lasting only 12 weeks, which makes this shift all the more notable. New to the CSUSM surveys were questions about social connection, and (not surprising to us) participants noted increased social connection. Their anonymized weekly comments credit the council huddles as the place where they felt most connected to each other, as well as a recognition that the “muscle” developed in these huddles allowed them to feel more connected to their families and the communities they serve.

Trends toward increased VLF

We measured HRV using 2 protocols–a 5-minute assessment and a 1-minute deep breathing assessment (DBA). The 5-min protocol gives us power-domain information, one aspect of which is called VLF (Very Low Frequency). This domain is a reflection of the heart’s intrinsic rhythm, and the best indicator of risk for all the diseases mentioned above (and that LE officers are at disproportionately high risk for compared with the general population). Our sample size was small, but nonetheless we saw an increase in participants’ VLF, alongside subjective comments similar to what the LAPD officers told us–that they were sleeping better, had improved blood pressure, had lost weight, were no longer suffering from chronic GI issues. I hope in future cohorts to add to our data set, and perhaps even re-measure HRV months out from the training, as I think that the improvement in VLF seen after 3 months persists or maybe even increases based on the continued improved health that some of our LAPD officers talk about.

Loss of heart dysrhythmia

In our CSUSM cohort, there was one individual whose data we couldn’t use because on first HRV measurement they had extremely frequent premature atrial contractions (PACs, a form of heart dysrhythmia). After making sure this person was not symptomatic, I decided to wait til the end of the training and re-record their HRV, thinking that if the extra beats persisted I would advise them to seek a physician’s care.

To my surprise, the PACs were completely gone! Additionally, in the anonymized feedback this individual commented on how the breathing practices were invaluable and that they now realize the importance of caring for self in order to care for others.

One of the officers from our LAPD cohort described the same scenario; he’d been prescribed medication for a heart dysrhythmia, but several weeks into the POWER training and employing the meditation and breathing practices he was able to stop the medication and his dysrhythmias went away.

Increased HRV Coherence

The improved VLF did not surprise me, but another unexpected finding did; in addition to the quantitative numbers that result in HRV measurement, the pattern of HRV is also important. Incoherent patterns show up when individuals are irritable, angry, fearful… and a coherent pattern emerges when someone is feeling appreciation, joy, love and gratitude. The physiologic state of coherence is one in which the way the heart beat varies aligns with other systems in the body–hormonal, circadian, and brain waves–bringing about improved individual health.

Both the 5-min and the 1-min DBA assessments showed increases in coherence. Although I had suspected that practices like council, in addition to breathing and mindfulness, lead to improved states of physiologic health, we did not think that in just 3 months we would note shifts in overall coherence.

Social Connection = HRV Coherence

We believe that coherence is the physiologic state of social connection. As described above, our participants had both increased coherence as well as statistically significant increases in the perception of being socially connected. Dr. McCraty is doing research with particularly cohesive groups globally, and is finding that individuals in these societies (for instance, in New Zealand and Saudi Arabia) have a high degree of coherence with each other. Highly successful sports teams or Navy SEAL units describe a sense of “flow” while functioning well together, and researchers have shown that during these states their HRV pattern becomes coherent with each other.

Our Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory in 2023 calling out social isolation and loneliness as being a global health threat, and called for practices that can help us regain social connection, not just for mental health but physical as well. The anecdotal and case-based responses we’d been hearing about the POWER program indicated we were onto something that could improve individual, relational, and societal health. And now, with the addition of biometric data, we are actually seeing the physiologic proof that POWER–and council in particular–is a highly effective means to combat social isolation and improve health; not just for officers themselves, but also for the communities they serve.

Once our research is published I will post the link to the article. In the meantime, you can reach out to Beyond Us & Them for more information on POWER.

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Ann Seide MD

Ann Seide MD is an Integrative Medicine Doctor with 25 years of experience working as a hospitalist and palliative care physician. She is also a Zen Buddhist, trained Council practitioner, Navy veteran and founder of Seide Integrative Health in Thousand Oaks, California where she specializes in Integrative Oncology and Physician Health.

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