How Heart Rate Variability helps you build resilience to stress

Do you know how stressed you are? Your heart knows

Did you know that your heart rate can tell you how resilient you are to stress and pressure? And that you can use it to become more resilient? This webinar I recently gave explains how the heart is linked to your ability to handle stress, manage your emotions and more!

Presented to a fantastic group of MBIT coaches I also explore how you can use this information to enable your clients and employees to develop their self-awareness and ability to self-regulate in times of stress.

Know your HRV, know your resilience

Got questions? The session was followed by a hefty Q&A session, which you can find below:


A quick disclaimer first I’m not a doctor so anything you see here that you’re interested in if you’ve got any concerns know that this is there’s no de facto bible on on heart and Heart Rate Variability particularly in terms of living you know in terms of how to sharpen your life there’s lots on sport lot of focus on sport PTSD and also some disease but I wouldn’t say there’s one easy to easy-to-follow tome which says how you can use all of this so I’ve taken a lot of this from various research a lot of good stuff that’s come out of Heartmath and mBraining of course but I put it together in a way that’s my latest my latest view so if you’ve got any issues or concerns you should always be going to doctor.

A little quote there I went to a course with Richard Bandler I think it was back in 2009 and something he said that a lot struck with me but he said around the world people are stuck at various points of my personal development and I always think that in terms of this this is a whole new field in terms of Heart Rate Variability what it can do how it can help so it’s constantly changing and evolving so what you’re getting is where I am with my personal development of this right now but if you ask me tomorrow after I’ve read another paper I think I’ve got ten more papers that have been published in the last few months sitting on my desk that I haven’t read yet so things are changing all the time new research is coming on so bear that in mind.

So what we’re going to talk to about today is how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) affects the heart beat, what is Heart Rate Variability and how that’s related to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Heart Rate Variability and how you can detect emotions or how your emotions show up in your heart. And then in terms of what Heart Rate Variability means you can’t improve something if you can’t measure it. So how you can measure it and take that forward both yourself but also for your clients and certainly how I use our rate variability with people to develop their self-awareness so we’ll start with the heart.

A few facts. The heart forms before the head brain second to the gut brain but it forms very early on it doesn’t actually need the link to the head brain to keep beating so it does its own thing. It’s got its own central intelligence which allows it to keep doing and servicing the body. It beats a hundred thousand times a day for most people more than 3 billion heartbeats in a lifetime. A very interesting one I I think is it has the strongest electromagnetic field of any organ in the body that includes the head brain there’s a quite a lot of research going into this in terms of heart beat entrainment between people and also as you’d imagine the interference of electronic devices on the heart because whilst hearts can entrain each other and there’s a lot of research that’s shown that that happens between mother and baby but also between children and dogs but also it within a roomful of people you will see heart beat entrainment so if that’s happening and we’re able to send and receive those signals outside of the body then what is Wi-Fi and bluetooth and all those wonderful gadgets doing to it as well so what drives our heartbeat.

This is a great quote from Rolin McCraty who is a prolific writer from-from Heartmath who says the heart rate is actually driven by the two sides of our nervous system our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) so you’ve got the parasympathetic Vagus nerves and then you’ve got the sympathetic nerves which are speeding it up and slowing it down all of the time and the book reference The New Science of The Heart is really good if you really want to get into that detail the result of that is and this is this is a usually a shock to people when I’m explaining and coaching people is that the heart does not beat regularly in fact the more relaxed you are the more irregular the heartbeat is and that’s because the heart is servicing the body it’s not in terms of the heartbeat it’s it’s responding to demands from the body as a result of it being accelerated and slowed down by the Autonomic Nervous System and so most people when they when I explain that that said that’s a complete surprise to them in terms of okay so I just assumed it was a constant heartbeat that’s well it’s because you can see if you measure it or even you know you look a heartbeat on your phone or in your SmartWatch it’s taking the average it’s averaging that out but actually if you look down in the detail you can actually see minute changes and it’s happening constantly and those my new changes is really where the gold is in terms of understanding what’s going inside the body.

So Heart Rate Variability was something that it’s over a hundred years old I think it was about 1903 it was first documented that actually there was a link between the nervous system and the heart rate. Whereas now modern science I think Heart Rate Variability has been around for around thirty years it was used initially by NASA for measuring Astronauts but very quickly moved into sport and it’s been it’s been a huge part of elite professional sport for at least 20 years. The technology was very expensive back then whereas now you can measure your Heart Rate Variability using your phone you don’t need a chest strap. Chest straps are the most accurate way but for most people in terms of as an indication of health you can do it with your phone and I’ll tell you about some apps that you can use later on.

Recently it’s become a very strong indicator of the overall kind of health of your nervous system and the way it’s measured is if you can see that the graph at the bottom there you can see that kind of inconsistency of heartbeat so there’s an ebb and flow and so what Heart Rate Variability does is it takes a sample of your heart rate at various points and plots your average heartbeat across smaller time gaps then you would do so if you were counting your heart beats over a minute. I think the Heartmath algorithm uses 18 seconds. It differs for each different technology and that’s one thing to bear in mind so the other thing that’s worth understanding is you get that kind of that wave effect that you get with your Heart Rate Variability this is affected by your breath.

And this is why breath and heart rate are so closely linked so if we looked at your average heart rate that you would get when you count your beats for a minute say what’s actually happening is you’re getting an ebb and flow above and below that during the time and this is driven by your breathing so when you breathe in that’s activating the sympathetic side of your ANS your heart rate rises and your blood pressure increases as the body is dealing with that process of bringing in new oxygen and as you breathe out your heart rate drops your blood pressure drops driven by the parasympathetic side.

And this interests me in terms of your ability to change the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of your ANS by having unbalanced breathing so you can move and stimulate that the dominance of the different sides by having a shorter in breath on a longer out breath and that’s driven by that link between heart and breath.
So that’s a ideal example of the flow of the heart rate Heart Rate Variability is measured in simple terms between the peak and the trough of that that breathing variance that you’ve got if you had a look at somebody who’s currently sympathetic dominance might be that there are a treadmill you know they’re lifting weights they’re doing something they’re going on a brisk walk or a run but it could also be that they’re extremely stressed or they’ve been in caning the coffee that morning so that there’s a there’s a there’s a stronger pull on the sympathetic if they see the dotted line there that’s the same baseline heart rate that we were talking about before.

You get then a smaller amplitude because if there’s less chance for the parasympathetic to pull it down. Interestingly you’ll also get a different breathing rate so the two are closely linked and so you would see a reduced Heart Rate Variability so one of the things when you look at using heart variability to develop to measure your resilience which is a very strong indicator of resilience.

The best time to measure Heart Rate Variability is first thing in the morning because you’ve not had a chance to run around take stimulants etc so this is an example of what the heart rate plot might be through a day this is a sample of six or seven hours and you can see up here find that this is somebody who’s not at rest they’re moving around it’s going up and down all the time they get into a point where they’ve got presentation or they go stand up in front of people and you see the variation becomes much lower because they’re being driven by the sympathetic side so there’s a much less variability at that point if you took if you measured your HRV at this point it would give a really low score because there isn’t hardly any variability. Then they sit down heart rate drops in his back to more relaxed later on you can see they’re totally sitting down relaxing and there’s much more variability going on here, until they get onto the spin bike at the end of the day and you see a point where there’s no variability at all because at that point the heart is servicing the muscles it’s and they’re obviously require an awful lot of blood so there is no chance really for their for the parasympathetic side to have that rest and digest aspect so it becomes very hard.

I’m hoping they just took the sensor off at this point didn’t just die.

A few facts about high rate variability the actual number the amount of variability you have decreases over time so that’s just that’s just an aging thing I also think it’s you know a society thing that we get less and less good at the relaxing side because you know I’ve come across some people who are particularly dedicated yoga practitioners actually have a really high HRV.

Also professional athletes have hugh HRV and one of the reasons for that is they actively recover so because a lot of athletes are have their HRV measured many times a day by their coaches their recovery isn’t just sitting on the sofa like we including me have a tendency to do after a busy day, their active recovery will be stretching it will be massage it will be ice therapy etc all things that are well known to increase your HRV therefore they’re able to keep their HRV high even though their training is very high stress there are there are hundreds if not thousands of papers out there that are have correlated low HRV with current or future health problems also there’s a lot of research which has shown that HRV is very low in people suffering from PTSD or other intense traumas.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on that but and there’s quite a lot of information in (Bessel Van Der Kolk’s) The Body Keeps The Score regarding the use of HRV and measurement of HRV and PTSD which is very interesting it just goes to show you know that these intense traumas actually do have a significant impact on their nervous system.

One thing that’s quite interesting and I get this a lot with people that I’m working with Heartmath is that you will see that you’re coming down with a cold or that you’re overtraining or you’re not recovering enough through HRV so you might feel okay I get this a lot “My HRV is really low I feel okay the app’s not working” and I’ll say well okay let’s talk again in a couple of days and they’ve often come down with a cold or something like that and the fact that we don’t we feel okay and our HRV says we’re not is more about that we’re not necessarily in touch with how we feel at that point.
Again I always go back to professional sport and they can predict they actually alter the training regime when they see these big drops in HRV so they measure HRV before training and after training they have baseline HRV for people so they can they can see perhaps that they may be over trained a little bit that they that they’re coming down with something and it might cause them to go and have a look at their cortisol and actually see whether or not you know they’re carrying an injury or something like that for me and what I use it a lot for is to help people understand the level of resilience that they have I think it’s an interesting one in that HRV here is a good indicator of overall resilience that’s ability both ability to handle sort of physical stresses but also mental and emotional stress because it kind of crosses that boundary between brain body awful lot of research as well that has been shown that your HRV level does affect your cognitive functioning and I’ve certainly seen on the other side a correlation with people that are struggling with low HRV and really struggling cognitively.

So the way I often describe it is the more at the higher your HRV the the more you’re able to sort of bend and go with the flow to handle life speed bumps. It’s as close as I’ve kind of found to physical measure of someone’s window of tolerance and whether there’s actually a definite link there there’s definitely a metaphor there in terms of window and tolerance and HRV and being able to be aware of the days where your HRV is low and how you maybe things are going to affect you a bit more than they normally would and certainly really useful to help people develop so we’re aware of our own capabilities and limitations.

So we’re gonna get a little bit more technical here but I’m gonna avoid the temptation to get really engineering geeky so if you look at if you look at the electricity in your house is a thing called AC which means the electricity flows in a nice sine wave. Now connected to your electrical supply you’ve got computers telephones ovens microwaves everything that’s connected to your electricity supply is providing demands onto your electricity but as a result if you were to connect up a computer to it and actually look at that lovely sort of sine wave that you would expect to see you’ll see lots of spikes and lots of dips and noise because all of those pieces of equipment you know the organs in your house have an effect on the overall supply that you get in your house and what the spectrum does this is a this is a sort of an analysis of your Heart Rate Variability it is able to diagnose and pick out different demands on your heart rate that are embedded within that nice sine wave I showed you to start with and they could actually indicate to the level of activity in your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

So this is this is a typical graph that I spent lots of engineering years looking at and this one actually represents the level of activity in the ANS from a heart beat what’s called the low frequency side which is the side to the left is associated with the level of sympathetic activation that you’ve got going on in your body and what they call that HF the high frequency is the parasympathetic side so you can see in this there’s in the green is kind of where you see a lot of normal activation and the higher the power the stronger the demands of the sympathetic side.

Now if you’ve got in a balance you can actually see this on one of the screens there’s a thing called the spectrum it’s the same thing so the left hand so the gray the light gray area here is where when you’re doing in a balance when you’re doing your balance breathing you will see this area grow and get stronger and you want these spikes to be as high as possible this side represents your sympathetic activation and this side represents your parasympathetic activation so you can actually take a little measure not not start doing your normal breathing if you want to if your geeky like me and you want to just see what’s going on in the nervous system you can wire yourself up just breathe normally swipe to this spectrum side and actually see this action in real time.

That’s a really interesting exercise to do because you can then play around and experiment with thoughts and experiences and breathing patterns and see what it does so if you’re into different breathing techniques then try them out and see whether or not you can shift the balance in your nervous system.

So because we’ve gone through and explained that the ANS is represented in our Heart Rate Variability there’s a little awful lot of research that’s going on at the moment and this is a paper that was published in 2016 with the really snazzy title catchy title emotion detection and recognition using HIV features derived from I’m not going to present pronounce that but it’s finger measurement so it’s picking up your heartbeat through optical sensor on the finger and what they are able to do is they got they got test subjects to experience real base emotions happy sad and don’t really feel anything and then they were they wrote an algorithm that looked at the Heart Rate Variability looked at the spectrum that would looked at and was able to do pattern recognition with 84 percent accuracy the computer was able to identify to happy sad and neutral.

They also did some experiments with using optical recognition of facial signs as well so the idea that just by smiling affects your atonomic nervous system puts you into a happier place and the computer was pretty accurate at picking those up and what that ultimately means is if you now think about the fact that our Heart Rate Variability is therefore affected by our emotions and the fact that we transmit this stuff externally and we have the capability to receive that stuff you know a little bit we were but it starts to me you realize that actually there’s a whole load of autonomic communication going on between people and how the feelings get transmitted because they’re transmitted into electromagnetic waves so here’s an example of the spectrum this is what you would see with you see with anger so you see the low frequency side is very spiky there’s hardly anything going on there so the more extremely emotion the more to the left or right you’re going to get and bear in mind you know some emotion so low frequency is not all bad you know if someone was excited you would still get you would still get spikes on this side they just wouldn’t necessarily look quite so extreme.

This is what relaxation looks like so you can see we’ve still got someone still got some sympathetic stuff going on here but it’s much spike here on the parasympathetic side and then this one I think it’s quite interesting when you do balance breathing particularly we do something like we did at the start with a level of appreciation the sympathetic side and parasympathetic sight calmed down and where the two meet you often get a very massive spike and that’s when when working with people within a balance that’s the kind of proof where you get that sort of profound feeling of calm where the two meet and that’s also the area I think that having your spectrum looking like that is where one way to improve your Heart Rate Variability.

So we’ve talked a lot at the back about it how do you measure it so I recommend there’s two different ways to measure it there’s two apps out there ones free and one’s got a bit of a cost to it the first one is Welltory. It is free it’s not a sports app it’s a lifestyle type app so it will give you your Heart Rate Variability measure but it also interprets it. So it will split it into two scores one is your stress level another is your energy level and they’re different components of your overall measurement but they’re intended to give an indication of the level of activation of your sympathetic nervous system that you’re feeling right now and then how much capacity you’ve got in your parasympathetic to handle state the speed bumps today so it’s a great one for people to start with if they’ve got no familiarity with any of this sort of stuff.

It’s a brilliant one to start with and it’s free you can pay for it and if you pay for though it you get it to link up to other things that you measure so number of steps level of exercise and sleep so it gives an overall a kind of systemic view of the activity that you’re doing and the impact that it’s having on your Heart Rate Variability.

So it’s good at get out and lots of learning inside of that as well so people can not only say all my Heart Rate Variability is low they can understand within the app why that is.

For the more sporty people I would recommend iThlete. The app is free but you do have to pay for this finger sensor I think since I think is about 25 pounds and that will just give you a number it will tell you your Heart Rate Variability out of 120 I think it is and it will track it day by day so if you’re quite active it will tell you it will give you advice on the level and intensity of training that you’re doing so that’s quite a good one for people who I’ve got very busy jobs and then they think to relax they’ll go and smash it down the gym.

They learn that they don’t switch off because over time what that does is it will actually show them that they can’t burn the candle at both ends and they’ve got to find that the more active way to recover.

One thing worth bearing in mind is all these apps have a tendency to interpret the rules and the data just slightly differently so you might get a score of 70 on one app and you might get a score of 50 on the other app and it doesn’t mean that suddenly you’re not well it means they are interpreting it different so pick an app and stick with it.
It’s also not a substitute for knowing how you feel you know I use this this technology of people who are just playing completely ignorant of what’s going on inside and are really stressed but my ultimate aim is to wean them off it so that they actually just have a better sense internally of how they feel because that’s ultimately gonna kind of help.
So we’ve said it’s important and resilience you know it it shows up with your emotions there’s an awful lot of internet science out there recommending lots of different things that you can do with Heart Rate Variability to improve it. These are the ones that that I’ve either experienced or I’m pretty confident that they do work. Exercise is a massive one for it improves your the efficacy of your sympathetic side nervous system loads of loads of research and very large studies to to cover that because a lot of it is sponsored by professionals for biofeedback training. It definitely has an impact on both Heart Rate Variability and the knock-on effect of some of the stress hormones as well so Heartmath is my preferred one but there’s some other ones out there it’s not quite so elegant but Omegawave has got a lot of research behind it as well and I’m talking to a few people who’ve been who use that instead of Heartmath particularly for professional sport because it’s a bit more expensive and they’ve got to stick sensors on your head as well so it kind of has gotten it’s kind of neurofeedback element as well as Heart Rate Variability.

Going a bit Wim Hof but cold exposure has got an awful lot of research on it to show that it has quite a significant impact on both sides of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Heat exposure so saunas as well as a growing body of research there generally on the sympathetic side but also improves your ability to rebound and compensate for those stressful events.

Sleep and HRV are massively linked loads and loads of research to show the impact of sleep deprivation on HRV and I think for most people that’s the first one they should do to sort their sleep out.

The last one is meditation. I think there are there are certainly there are some types of meditation where you can you can see you can immediately see that they’re impacting and benefiting HRV and then there’s other meditations that personally I don’t think they’re as efficient as at HRV as a lot of the internet claims. The jury’s out for me a bit on mindfulness but certainly more active focus meditations like loving-kindness meditation is massively beneficial there’s also a lot of research around chanting and singing and the benefit on the HRV through the Vagus nerve and really anything that for me that increases it icreases the capacity or the effectiveness of either side of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is likely to improve HRV and the best way to is to measure it and see what happens to your HRV do more of it and then see if your HRV improves.

I just want to leave you with this. The heart is intimately linked to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in the breath so it can’t not know everything. Heart Rate Variability is a really simple thing to measure and really geeky if you want to get into the into the detail of it but it’s a great place to start to get people to understand their levels of resilience and also to start to develop an awareness of their the state of their ANS.

Anything that stimulates improvement in either side of the ANS branch is likely to improve HRV unless somebody’s got some underlying issue that needs to be dealt with.

It’s a great way just to start people develop in their own internal sense of of how they feel and how they’re operating it but one thing to avoid is it shouldn’t become a crutch it shouldn’t become the absolute answer to everything. “Oh I’m okay today because my HRV says so.” People should in my opinion develop the ability to know how they feel and know how they are and maybe use HRV as a second check.

Further Reading

McCraty, R., Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance Volume 2. 2015. HeartMath Institute. Link here.

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


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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