“We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence, i.e., the sense that life is comprehensible, manageable and meaningful, and the ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationship with their environment.” –Aaron Antonvsky
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
HRV is a unique way of actually measuring the activity and tone of parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the involuntary nervous system that includes the “sympathetic” (active go go go side) and the “parasympathetic” (chill out and relax side) of your central nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal activity and digestion, and relaxes the muscles as well as the mind. Purposefully engaging and activating the parasympathetic nervous system is the end goal of HRV. This type of biofeedback is not a form of meditation nor is it breathing exercises; you are training your mind to engage in four major areas:
- Heart - The heart is a sensitive marker for emotional changes, as reflected in heart rhythm patterns. Despite the heart appearing “regular” there are very tiny beat-to-beat variations that naturally occur in a healthy body. This barely perceivable time difference in the beat- to-beat variation can be measured and reflects the health of the parasympathetic nervous system. Your pulse actually speeds up ever so slightly when you breathe in and slows down when you exhale. This natural rhythm is altered by stress and chronic inflammation and can be detected by measuring heart rate variability. More importantly we can retrain the body to rediscover this rhythm by using HRV as a tool. Lack of balance or “incoherence” all describe the end-state of disease. When in a balanced state, the cardiac system displays regular variations in rate and rhythm.
- Brain - Messages the heart sends the brain can significantly affect performance and mediate brain activity. Intentionally altering your emotional state towards positive feelings will allow for coherence. So the brain affects the heart and heart in turn impacts the brain.
- Breathing - One of the ways a person can shift to a more positive emotional state is through deep and rhythmic breathing. As noted above, our breath alters nerve signals and heart response.
- Nervous System - Once we engage the heart, brain and breathing our bodies begin to function with a high degree of efficiency and harmony. This is called coherence. Maintaining coherence takes time and practice. It is a powerful tool during stressful or challenging situations. Achieving coherence is different than “relaxing”- you relax when you watch TV or listen to music but this may or may not translate into coherence. Coherence leads to mental clarity, creativity and better problem-solving abilities.
When these four systems come together and work in harmony it’s similar to when an elite athlete is in the “zone”. Everything is just right. Their mind and body are in sync: balance, coordination, reaction time.
Why use HRV?
A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they'd be asked the "half empty or half full"
question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: "How heavy is this glass of water?"
Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, "The absolute weight doesn't matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it's not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, i'll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn't change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes." She continued, "The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything."
It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don't carry them through the evening and into the night. Remember to “put the glass down”
The term “stress” is much more than a long day at work. Stress includes (and is certainly not limited to) the wear and tear we put our bodies through every minute of every day: medications, processed foods, rush hour, illness, injury, alcohol, plastics, fumes, cosmetics and the list goes on and on. According to the American Institute of Stress, up to 90% of all health problems are related to stress. Too much stress can contribute to and agitate heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and sleep disorders.
A key component to understand about mental/emotional stress: it’s not the events or situations that do the harm; it’s how you respond to those events. When you intentionally shift to a positive emotion, heart rhythm immediately changes. This has tremendous ramifications for long-term health and affords us a valuable portal through which we can exert control over our base physiology.