What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and how can it help you manage stress?

Stress is unavoidable, but how you mind and body deal with it can change with Heart Rate Variability training

A key aspect of my coaching approach is to help you to solve problems by training you to understand and develop your heart rate variability (HRV). In this article I provide some explanation of the property and how heart rate variability is an indicator of the stresses you are experiencing that limits your performance and wellbeing.

Stress and its impact on health

Stress is a huge problem in today’s society.  A little stress is actually useful; it gets us to appointments on time, it motivates us to achieve goals, it makes us fitter and stronger. And yet for the majority of people in the Western world, the daily stresses of living, working, parenting and travelling are taking their toll on our health. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK states that around a third of all new incidences of ill health at work are due to stress.  And across Europe, 45% of deaths are from stress related cardiovascular disease. And for most people who are still living and breathing, stress is affecting their wellbeing and performance in numerous ways.

I’m sure that you probably know that most human hearts beat somewhere between 60 and 90 beats per minute. What is less known is that there is usually an irregularity to the beats.  Instead, the intervals will look something like this: 0.83 s., 1.31 s., 0.73 s., etc. The phenomenon is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

In a well, low stress person, the heart beats vary in intervals, as the heart responds to the various demands from the body. The more stressed someone is, the less the interval varies. This phenomenon is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and is easily measurable using a smartphone.
In a well, low stress person, the heart beats vary in intervals, as the heart responds to the various demands from the body. The more stressed someone is, the less the interval varies. This phenomenon is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and is easily measurable using a smartphone.

And most people on hearing this assume that more irregularity means a more stressed person. In fact, the opposite is true. The more variable the heart rate (or the higher the Heart Rate Variability, or HRV for short), the more flexible your nervous system is in its response to stress. The lower your HRV, the more stressed your nervous system is, limiting your ability to deal with new stresses, and possibly indicating health issues.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) lets you measure your stress, and what you can measure, you can improve

Being able to measure stress, therefore, may help to address this problem. Although stress has a psychological origin, it affects several physiological processes in the human body: increased muscle tension in the neck, change in concentration of several hormones and a change in heart rate and heart rate variability.

Managing the heart, all internal organs and blood vessels is too important to give us direct (conscious) control over it. That is why it is all regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It’s called “autonomic” because it functions autonomously. It is like a computer that tracks the activity of all systems in the body. We don’t think about the process of breathing, digesting or vasoconstriction. All of it happens by itself.

The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Each system dominates at a different time, which affects the body accordingly.
For example, when you go for a run you may experience the effects of the SNS: the blood is pumped to the muscles and your breathing accelerates. Feel sleepy after a hearty meal? The secret lies in the parasympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for digestion, making us feel relaxed and at rest.

Lowered HRV can be due to a number of different factors, including age, gender, disease or stress, among many other things. Stress can be induced by many different influences, from internal worries to stress on the body caused by exertion or surgery. Stress acts directly on the autonomic nervous system, creating imbalance in the tug-ofwar mentioned previously. When the autonomic nervous system is in balance, HRV tends to be higher, and when it is out of balance, HRV tends to be lower. This makes it a good biomarker for stress

Heart Rate Variability - A measure of how balanced your nervous system is, and an indicator of overall health and resilience

Low HRV is a proven indicator of poor health, and an effective method of improving wellness and response to stress. High HRV is a clinically proven measure of wellness and can be developed through trainingA healthy nervous system is like a good rubber band; it stretches under pressure, and returns back to its original shape. A nervous system already under stress doesn’t have the flexibility of response to the same pressure. So, to use the same metaphor, it may not return to the same shape when dealing with new pressures. Extensive research over the last 25 years has found a strong correlation between low HRV and an array of illnesses and diseases.

The good news is that you can easily increase your HRV levels. Although Heart Rate Variability is a function of the body’s autonomic nervous system and normally not under conscious control, when HRV is monitored so that people receive biofeedback on the results of what they think or do, they can learn to raise HRV through techniques such as conscious breathing, meditation, or physical relaxation.

There’s an app for that; measure and improve your HRV using your smart phone

Although the phenomena of HRV was discovered in the 1700s, its use as an indicator of health and stress came to the fore in the 1990s as digital signal processing led to the discovery of a correlation between autonomous nervous system health and the variability of heart beat, and has been extensively researched ever since. Consequently, it was a matter of time before HRV moved from cutting edge medical research technology to a measurement that can easily be taken on a low end smart phone.

Welltory - the most comprehensive app for quantifying your lifestyle, understanding your stress and energy levels and what events and people drain your wellbeing.
Welltory – the most comprehensive app for quantifying your lifestyle, understanding your stress and energy levels and what events and people drain your wellbeing.

Heart Rate Variability monitoring is non-invasive and involves using an external heart monitor (a number of which are available to the general public today at reasonable prices). Monitors can be strapped on the chest, clipped onto the earlobe or finger, or even built into “smart” clothing.

How Heart Rate Variability training is used in my coaching

Heart Rate Variability training using biofeedback is a proven technique for helping you in to a powerful "flow" state of mind for solving problems, and is a technique that you can apply in all areas of your life
When we look at your perceived problems, or unresolved goals during a coaching session, my role is to help you to a state of mind that opens up options and possibilities. Heart Rate Variability training using biofeedback is a proven technique for helping you in to a powerful “flow” state of mind for solving problems, and is a technique that you can apply in all areas of your life

We’ve previously discussed that Heart Rate Variability can be improved, or altered through training. Traditionally this was achieved using the breathing exercise and visualisations traditionally found in Eastern practices such as Yoga (Pranayama) or Qigong meditation, however with the developments in neuroscience, this mind-heart state (often referred to as coherence) can be achieved quickly with simple breathing exercises that can be done in a meeting or before exercise that will significantly affect your outcome. And if you want to go further and use these techniques to help you perform at an even higher level, I use tools such as HeartMath to help you train and develop your response to stressors and even dissolve stress responses that limit your choices in certain situations.

The emwave technology, developed by the Heartmath Institute, allows you to understand and measure your mental and emotional state, allowing you to learn and develop your own state management, leading to better handling of stress and improved decision making. Handheld devices, called Inner Balance, connect to smartphones to allow you to develop your stress management skills in your own time.
The emwave technology, developed by the Heartmath Institute, allows you to understand and measure your mental and emotional state, allowing you to learn and develop your own state management, leading to better handling of stress and improved decision making. Handheld devices, called Inner Balance, connect to smartphones to allow you to develop your stress management skills in your own time.

So part of my coaching approach is to use this technology to help you increase your own awareness of your stressed state, and also to learn how to get yourself in to the optimum state for making wise decisions under pressure, about work, life and beyond. And this has the added benefit of helping you develop your resilience to stress and greater clarity of thought to handle future challenges.

References

Billman, G., Heart Rate Variability: A Historical Perspective , Frontiers of Physiology, 2011. Link here.

Soosalu, G., Oka, M., mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff, . TimeBinding Publications. Link here.

Taelman, J., Vandeput, S., Van Huffel, S., Influence of Mental Stress on Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability, 2009, 4th European Conference of the International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering. Link here.

Seong; J.S. Lee; T.M. Shin; W.S. Kim; Y.R. Yoon; Y.R. Yoon; “The Analysis of Mental Stress Using Time-Frequency Distribution of Heart Rate Variability Signal,” H.M. Proceedings of the 26th Annual International conference of the IEEE EMBS, September 2004.

Lizawati Salahuddin; Jaegeol Cho; Myeong Gi Jeong; Desok Kim; “Ultra Short Term Analysis of Heart Rate Variability for Monitoring Mental Stress in Mobile Settings,” Proceedings of the 29th Annual Inernational Conference of the IEEE EMBS, August 2007.

C. Schubert; M. Lambertz; R.A. Nelson; W. Bardwell; J.-B. Choi, J.E. Dimsdale; Effects of Stress on Heart Rate Complexity—A Comparison Between Short-Term and Chronic Stress, Biological Physiology, 80 (2009).

C.S. Weber; J.F. Thayer; M. Rudat; A.M. Sharma; F.H. Perschel; K. Buchholz; H.C. Deter; Salt-Sensitive Men Show Reduced Heart Rate Variability, Lower Norepinephrine and Enhanced Cortisol During Mental Stress, Journal of Human Hypertension, 2008.

P.T. Ahamed Seyd; V.I. Thajudin Ahamed; Jeevamma Jacob; Paul Joseph K.; Time and Frequency Domain analysis of Heart Rate Variability and their Correlations in Diabetes Mellitus, International Journal of Biological and Life Sciences, 2008.

Matt

Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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