Anyone who has a demanding job or family life will suffer stress at some point in their life. A number of factors contribute to the build-up of stress and impact our body’s biology for the worse including being over-worked, over-training the body, or personal and emotional issues. High stress can be a killer as the body produces too much of the stress hormone cortisol which can result in a number of negative biological factors including interfering with learning and memory, lower immune function, increased weight gain, high blood pressure and in some instances depression.
Stress is prevalent in today’s society as our work and personal lives become increasingly busier and there’s more pressure on people to aspire to certain lifestyles or to look a certain way, fuelled in-part by the media and our always-on culture. Quite simply, stress is not going away any time soon.
An indication of a stressed state can be found when analysing an individual’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – the time interval between a heartbeat – measured by the variant between beat-to-beat intervals. If, for example, your heart beats 60 times every minute it does not necessarily mean that there will be a one second interval between each beat. How sporadic the interval is between beats is in fact highly dependent on how stressed you are.
Benefits of Heart Rate Variability Training
Training your heart rhythm and breathing and thus creating a consistent HRV is linked with better physical and emotional health and can:
- Reduce cortisol levels
- Reduce anxiety
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Increase mood
- Improve physical stability
- Improve cognitive and memory performance
Heart Rate Variability Before Training
There are a number of different apps and devices that can be used for HRV training. I use Heartmath’s Emwave2 and below is my HRV reading from the device before starting a training session. Beat variability is erratic and inconsistent, and heart coherence is poor.
Using the Emwave2
The Emwave2 is a handheld biofeedback device that tracks and trains your HRV. Developed by HeartMath, a company with a suite of hardware and software designed to help people understand and improve, what they call, heart intelligence, the Emwave2 records pulse waves either using the thumb on the device itself or attaching an ear clip so you can do it hands free. It’s been designed so it can be used at a computer or on the go. HeartMath also has a research, education and training nonprofit called the Institute of Heartmath that aims to help people reduce stress, self-regulate emotions and build energy and resilience for healthy, happy lives.
I prefer to use the Emwave2 with the accompanying software at my computer. Size wise it’s about 30 percent smaller and slightly thicker than an iPhone 5s. Once it’s plugged in and the session has started, the software begins to show – in realtime – the movement of the HRV line graph and other variables such as time spent, heart rate and coherence score. Coherence is a term coined by and defined by HeartMath as the signal between the heart and brain. The higher the coherence the more you’re in a relaxed and low stress state, and likely to be experiencing similar feelings to what those who practice meditation feel.
Heart Rate Variability After Training
A session can run for as long as you choose and there are varying levels but I usually do it for around 10 minutes and by which time both my coherence and HRV scores are high, and yes, in the words of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, I’m as calm as a hindu cow. Look at the lines in the graph from before and after, there’s a massive difference and my mood and feeling after reflect this. Remember however, that this is HRV training (emphasis on ‘training’) and you can’t expect immediate results (though the immediate feeling after a session for me personally is fantastic) and increasing the Emwave2’s difficulty levels will help keep you challenged as you progress through it. The key thing to remember is to apply the breathing and keep a high coherence state as you go about your day and as stressful situations arise.
People who practice yoga on a regular basis won’t require training using technology like the Emwave2 as research has shown that yoga improves HRV by practicing the discipline. My own N=1 personal experiment of doing yoga and using the Emwave2 soon after found that I received the best HRV and coherence score to date.