Feeling Stressed? Read a Poem.

The flow of a good poem can synchronize your heart and breath.

Those of us who love literature have perhaps felt its capacity for healing. But what does the science say? Can reading poems relieve the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety? That’s what videographer Steven Allardi and I set out to investigate in the videos below. They feature interviews with Bate and Inna Khazan, a biofeedback researcher and clinician at Harvard Medical School.

Biofeedback uses sensitive medical instruments to test how techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness affect physiological indicators of stress such as blood pressure. Two of the most powerful indicators are impossible to measure without high-tech instruments: heart rate variability and cardio-respiratory synchronization. Within a given minute, your heart rate is not perfectly stable. In fact, it varies from beat to beat, moving from (say) 60 beats per minute to 80 beats per minute and then back down—all within a few seconds. It turns out high heart rate variability (HRV) in a resting state directly correlates with mental health,2 well-being,3 and even long-term resilience to stressors and trauma.4

A series of studies have shown that reading rhythmic poetry can increase both your resting HRV5 and cardio-respiratory synchronization.6 It turns out this is especially true for poetry in long six-beat lines, such as the ancient Greek poetry that Plato described as sending its reciters into a trance-like or “rhapsodic” state. High HRV and cardio-respiratory synchronization can help induce that “flow state” in which mental focus becomes effortless and enjoyable. Perhaps those ancient Greek “rhapsodes” had found the trick to flow state in poetry.

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