Heart rate variability: What it is and how it might help you understand your mental health

As more research is conducted on our nervous system and stress response, the more we see how interconnected our brain and bodies really are. One interesting connection is between our Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and our stress response.

First, let’s define Heart Rate Variability (HRV). In the book Heart, Breath, Mind, Dr. Leah Lagos defines HRV as the “variation in beat to beat intervals” (p. 33). We often think that our heart beats at a steady pace similar to that of a metronome- with equal time between heartbeats. This, however, is not the case. The interval between our heart beats actually changes. The variation (or how much that time between heartbeats change) is what we refer to as HRV.

It is important to note that HRV and Heart Rate (HR) are two very different things. While HRV refers to the variation in time between heart beats, heart rate (HR) refers to the average number of heart beats you have in a given time frame.

So why is HRV relevant?

Interesting new research has shown an important correlation between high HRV and a more flexible autonomic nervous system. Practically, this means that people with a high HRV tend to be able to come in and out of a stress response with ease and flexibility.

Low HRV, on the other hand, is correlated with a less flexible nervous system, and therefore people with low HRV tend to feel hypervigilant and as though they are chronically stressed. Sound familiar?

Let’s look at an example: Say a person has a big presentation at work and they are feeling nervous. The person with high HRV would be able to feel their nerves and still feel resourced to deal with the situation. They would perform well under stress and then after the presentation was over they would return to a calm and relaxed state quickly. On the contrary, a person with low HRV may experience intense and paralyzing anxiety, perform poorly during the presentation due to nervousness, and still feel stressed for hours and maybe even days after the event.

If you apply this to a long term situation, low HRV may reflect a state of being chronically stressed leading to very real physical and mental health implications.

One important thing to note is that HRV is variable, meaning that our HRV can increase and decrease based on a number of things. One of the most powerful ways to affect our HRV is through breath. Simple breath practices throughout your day can have a large effect on increasing your HRV and increasing the flexibility of your stress response.

If this is something that interests you, be on the lookout for the new group we are about to offer that is dedicated to the practice of nervous system regulation through breath and movement.

There are also many great resources on breath work including Heart, Breath, Mind by Dr. Leah Lagos and The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown.

**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).

References

Lagos, L. (2000) Heart, breath, mind: Train your heart to conquer stress and achieve success. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY.

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