Heart Rate Variability and Stress

By Dr. Shellie L. Rosen, PhD, DOM, L.Ac.

Good physical and mental health depend upon a proper relationship with stress. Some stress is necessary, but in excess, it is dangerous. Easy biofeedback breathing exercises can condition the nervous system away from stress states into controlled relaxation. Committing to breathing exercises will improve your workouts and ability to regulate your emotions. By better understanding the connection between heart rate and breath, we can improve our response to stress and its adverse impacts on whole body health.

The autonomic nervous system has two modes of responding to stress, a sympathetic and a parasympathetic. The parasympathetic state is a resting state labeled “rest and digest,” where the body conserves energy. The sympathetic response engages “fight or flight,” which gives the body the energy and alertness to address a threat or difficult task. Releasing adrenaline (epinephrine) leads to sensory enhancement, increased breath, heart rate, and blood pressure. This phase also initiates the transportation of glucose to the bloodstream for energy.

An additional stress pattern is related to psychological triggers that place the body in a hypervigilant or fearful state. Strain over past events (including post-traumatic stress), future events, or chronic stress from continual environmental circumstances can activate a prolonged stress response that weakens the body’s overall health.

Heart rate measures average heart beats per minute. Heart rate variability, or HRV, measures the nervous system’s adaptability between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. A high HRV reading can represent the ability to shift from a stressful state into a relaxed mode. Excess stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) speed up the heart rate and compromise adaptability, causing a low HRV reading. A low HRV is possibly a sign of too much stress. Age, fitness, alcohol, sleep, genetics, and diet can affect the HRV. However, improvement is possible with breathwork.

Disciplined practitioners of the ancient methods of qi gong, tai chi, and yoga often present with high HRV due to their ability to shift into relaxation through dedicated practice. Breathwork engages a type of coherence between body systems. For example, the cardiovascular system begins to harmonize with the respiratory system, and the nervous system signals the body for safety and rest.

To practice resonance frequency breathing, which can generate coherence within the body, begin in a comfortable seated position. Using a timer, inhale for six seconds, then exhale for six seconds. You may also use an HRV device for breath guidance through an application. In such a case, you will be able to track your HRV progress over time and notice the help that breathing exercises provide. Modern camera phones can connect to applications that utilize the camera and flash features to read heart rate. You can also purchase a heart rate monitor or device that connects with your computer or phone. However, there is no need for any equipment. The exercise described here is enough to achieve excellent results. Apply this technique for 10-20 minutes every day. Abundant blessings to increasing stress management and emotional regulation through breathwork and HRV training!

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