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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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