Measure stress, recovery and resilience using heart rate variability (HRV)?

It seems the busier we become in life, the more likely we are to become disconnected in our mind – body relationship. The pull of life’s demands draws us away from our awareness with our physical body and we can be dominated by thoughts and our monkey mind instead. This often leads to a build up of stress in our mind and body. We only acknowledge it and take action once the body starts to experience some form of physical pain. We can always rely on the physical body as a way of telling us to shift our attention, to become more aware of how we are living or to slow down.

HeartMath Institute (HMI) and Firstbeat are pioneers in research and development in building reliable, scientifically based tools that can measure stress, recovery and resilience using HRV to bridge the heart, mind and body.

So what is heart rate variability (HRV)? HeartMath Institute define HRV as – “a measure of the naturally occurring beat-to-beat changes in the heart rate that serves as a critical method for gauging human health and resiliency.” So in other words, the time in between each heart beat is variable and can be affected by our thoughts, emotions, physical body and external environment.

There are many ways in which our body is exposed to stress (also known as physiological load). I like to think of our body as a bucket of resources (energy). We pour all sorts of pleasant and unpleasant stressors into this bucket, consciously and unconsciously. The physiological load can come in many forms:

Physical  (movement/exercise)

Mental/emotional  (frustration/excitement, our inner dialogue)

Environmental  (noise, air pollution, nature)

Thermal  (cold and hot climate)

Nutritional  (good or bad fuel for your body) to name a few.

Stressors can have positive or negative effects on the body depending on the amount of exposure and your individual resilience to specific stressors.

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the body’s control centre for stress. It is a balancing act between two systems. Therefore measuring HRV is an accurate and effective way of seeing how your body is dealing or not dealing with stress.

Simply put the ANS is divided into two parts:

1.    Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – associated with our fight, flight, freeze or faint responses to stressors and perceived stressors.

2.    Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – associated with rest, recovery, digestion and restoration.

When we inhale our heart rate naturally increases (sympathetic) and as we exhale it naturally decreases (parasympathetic). HRV is a way of measuring this form of naturally occurring irregularity between breathes. When the autonomic nervous system is in balance our heart rate variability tends to be high, however if the ANS is out of balance HRV tends to be lower.

High levels of HRV are a good indication that an individual is healthy and experiences lower levels of stress. It can also indicate better psychological resilience and better mental performance and productivity in the work place (superior mental performance on tasks requiring executive functions – prefrontal + frontal cortex of brain).

Low levels of HRV reflect physiological strain on the body and can be associated with depression, inflammation, hypertension, premenstrual syndrome, anxiety, congestive heart failure, diabetes, weight gain, chronic stress and behavioural problems in both adults and children. Low levels of HRV affect our ability to self-regulate and control certain aspects of our lives, for example our emotions when under stress.

At Transcend we use biofeedback (HRV data) from a comprehensive lifestyle assessment as a way of measuring stress, recovery, reliance and overall wellbeing. Here is an example of what a 24-hour period from one of our executive clients report looks like.

So what does all this terminology and science mean to me? Basically, it means that we can quantify how well you are processing life and all its demands on your heart, body and mind. We can help you to understand what may or may not be affecting your health and/or performance.

The quality of your lifestyle and HRV are a true reflection of your health, level of performance and wellbeing.

Why is this so important? Achieving overall wellbeing and investing in your own health is important. It will have a ripple effect to all areas of your life. It will affect how you show up in your world and with those around you. You can build in awareness and simple daily practises that can help you anchor change for the better. You can enjoy an intrinsic sensation in your being that will empower you to make better decisions for your self and at work.

If you are curious and would like to learn more about our lifestyle assessment and how it can help you to achieve more balance in your life please contact me:

Thank you for reading!

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