Maybe you’ve heard about elite athletes, like Lebron James and Michael Phelps, using HRV devices as part of their training? I first heard about HRV in the realm of athletic training, when a friend showed me his fancy (and expensive!) new Whoop HRV monitoring device. But it turns out that HRV is way more fascinating than I first realized…
AND way more important to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health than you ever imagined!
To Start I want to invite you you to take in a big breath, then gently restrict the exhalation as you breath out to extend it longer than the inhale…gently, please.
As you are slowly exhaling, pay attention to what you are feeling in your heart region…then follow any sensations outward from your heart and core toward your arms and legs, fingers and toes…
What you feel happening is key to understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV). So, let’s unpack some of the science behind it and why it matters if you want to stop – and then reverse – the cycle of chronic stress and all the cascade of health challenges that come with it.
Stated as simply as possible, when you exhale, you are putting on the brakes to your nervous system. When you inhale, you are pushing on the accelerator. Heart Rate Variability is linked to the balancing energies between your body’s accelerator and brakes. That’s the basic idea.
HRV is all about balance – the dynamic balance between your accelerator and your brakes.
If you want to perform at your best and feel healthy, you know you need to find the right balance between work and rest, etc. The same is true for your heart rate variability. And your body is made up of many overlapping systems. HRV is linked to balance throughout your entire being, to all the different systems – physically, emotionally, and at the level of spirituality and intuition.
If we drill down a little deeper, you can think back to Biology 101 in high school. Your heart rate is controlled by your Autonomic Nervous System (or ANS) – which also controls your breathing, the release of hormones (like adrenaline, cortisol, and DHEA), and millions of other automatic processes that your brain and body are constantly adjusting to help you stay in balance, healthy, and alive.
[Side Note: Your body wants to stay in a natural state of balance, feeling centered, flexible, and wise. It’s your thoughts that get in the way. But you can use this to your advantage in healing from chronic stress!]
Your ANS is made of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. An asy way to remember this is “P” for Peace = Parasympathetic. When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, like when you gently extend your exhale, this decreases your heart rate. The Sympathetic Nervous System is the accelerator. It is activated when you inhale, and it increases heart rate.
The more variability you have in the time between each heart beat, the more balanced and healthy your nervous system is. So, unlike just measuring your resting heart rate – which could be around 40 (if you’re really in good cardio shape) to 70 or 80+ beats per minute – HRV goes deeper into what your heart is telling you about how balanced you are.
The amount of time between each heart beat fluctuates constantly (see image below), and this variability gives you an HRV score.
More variability means that your Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems are working together in harmony to keep you in a healthy state of balance. When your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is completely overwhelmed or shut down, it stops regulating variability, and variability goes does.
That means that higher HRV measurements are an optimal sate of resilience and efficient energy use, because your systems are working together with flexibility and adaptability – keeping you ready go about your day and able handle what comes at you with sufficient energy (aka, creating less stress!).
When your HRV is high, you are in a state that we call coherence. It’s coherent because your heart, brain, nervous system, hormonal systems (and thousands of other processes) are optimized to work together. They are coherent, or aligned, and working to support each other. You feel this as increased energy, resourcefulness, and enjoyment.
When you have lower HRV, your system is out of balance and your brain and body’s systems are working against each other. This tension or friction uses more energy, and means you have less energy to do things like think, plan, be present with the people you love, and make decisions. You feel this as stress.
Optimal HRV levels indicates an inherent capacity for self-regulation, adaptability, emotional and cognitive flexibility, and resilience. That’s why some physicians and researchers believe that HRV is one of the most important physiological indicators of overall health that we can measure.
I mentioned above that professional athletes like Lebron and Michael Phelps are using expensive HRV devices ($500 or more) to track HRV and to plan their training and peak performance. (And Whoop doesn’t give you access to HRV data in real-time, unlike the Inner Balance Sensor, which is hundreds of dollars cheaper!)
Cardiovascular health through exercise, along with controlled breathing, can increase HRV and coherence. BUT here’s where it gets really interesting. If you really want to shift your baseline HRV to healthier levels, you have to pay attention to the role of your thoughts and – MOST IMPORTANTLY – to the effect your EMOTIONAL STATES AND ENERGY have on HRV.
You can actually test this yourself using the Inner Balance Sensor from HeartMath (which is now included as part of the Centering for Wisdom program). When you first begin to practice you can see your HRV shift into coherence just by slowing down your breathing. But if you want to progress to higher coherence levels for longer periods of time, you will find that breath alone will not sustain it. You have to add in the intentional cultivation of positive emotions – such as gratitude, care for others.
Learning to recognize “triggering” thoughts and emotions, without reacting to them, begins to clear out old emotional patterns that interfere with HRV. (This is the heart of the entire Centering for Wisdom program.). HeartMath techniques show you how to replace those old patterns with positive emotional patterns, and watch your HRV respond in real time. That is what creates lasting baseline shifts. That’s where the HeartMath techniques, combined with tracking your progress with the sensor and app, become so powerful!
All of this is currently being updated and integrated into the Centering for Wisdom program, which will be going live again in 2022.
My primary goal is to help you get out of chronic stress, overwhelm, and burnout, and to get in touch with your inner resources for leading with wisdom and compassion. But let me leave you with this impressive list of other conditions that are associated with autonomic imbalance (or low HRV) and can be helped by shifting your baseline HRV:
- Panic disorder
- Sleep disorder
- Iritable bowl
- Chemical sensitivity
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Heart arrhythmia
All of these conditions have been scientifically studied as conditions that can be improved or cured through increased HRV coherence!
Do I have your attention? I hope so, because this is groundbreaking stuff!
Stay tuned and I’ll be back with more updates about what I’ll have available for you in early 2022. In the meantime, I hope you’re having a wonderful Advent or holiday season and that you continue to find ways to deepen your daily centering, contemplative practice!
Next time I’ll discuss how a daily practice of Centering Prayer and Meditation can help to shift your baseline emotional state and increase your HRV Coherence.
Also, if you have any questions for me, please drop me a note in FB Messenger in the bottom right corner of your screen!