Our bodies are well adapted to dealing with acute stressors, but chronic stressors, not so much. Our society lives in a very sympathetic dominant state. We, more or less, live in fight or flight mode. The things that we stress over now are things like money, raising kids, school, family, relationships, work and driving on the interstates. These are chronic stressors because they don’t necessarily go away, they are low grade and additive. To add fuel to the fire, we are not taught how to deal with these types of stressors. If we don’t have the ability to change our perception of them and our response to them, they can really mount a significant impact on our system.
One of the tools that I use to better understand the autonomic nervous system balance and flexibility is heart rate variability (HRV). This might sound familiar, everyone has heard of the“heart rate.” But heart rate variability goes a little deeper, it looks at the variability from second to second or from moment to moment in the heart rate. We are measuring the flexibility of the heart to go from a really high heart rate to a very low heart rate. What we want to see is high heart rate variability- that is, we are able to ebb and flow between the stress response and the relaxation response, in a highly variable and smooth pattern. When we can see optimal HRV, our body is in a state of groundedness, connectedness and otherwise. When we see jagged, or interrupted transitions, it presents a different picture: of the body running the show, running around with our heads cut off, so to speak. The HRV monitor I use is by the Heart Math Institute. If you haven’t heard of them, check them out, they are into some really wild research and they have some really great equipment that has helped out my patients a lot. When looking at HRV they use this idea of coherence. They rate them high, medium and low coherence. When we are at high- we are connected, grounded, in sync. It means our brain and body are acting as a unit. When we are at low- we are disconnected, the body is running the show, the messages to the brain isn’t necessarily permeating through. This is a state of stress in the body and not a place of optimal function. We can use HRV monitoring to figure out which state of coherence we are in. Once we realize our baseline, we can work on things to change our coherence. You heard that correctly.. we can CHANGE our coherence. One of those things we use is deep breathing. Deep breathing has the ability to trigger a parasympathetic response, or a relaxation response. Deep breathing alone can improve our coherence and HRV.
The Heart Math Institute teaches this really great quick coherence technique that you can do in 5 minutes or less. My patients will be astonished at how fast they can see shifts and improvements in their coherence using this exercise. The quick coherence technique contains 3 parts.
- Step one - bring your attention to your heart’s center. By that we mean the middle of the chest. Close your eyes and focus on your right index finger, then your left index finger. Figure out what it feels like to bring your attention to a certain part of the body. Then do it for your heart’s center and breathe normally, whatever is natural.
- Step two- while keeping your attention on your heart’s center, breathe in and out of that heart’s center, filling up the center of the chest. As you inhale imagine it filling up and as you exhale, imagine all the energy leaving and permeating outwards.
- Step three- add in a feeling or an emotion to your breathing. A feeling of love, gratitude, or appreciation. Allow that to permeate your whole body.
Let’s take a step back and assess what we are doing. We are using our brain, our focus, our breath and a positive emotion and we are changing our physiology. We are changing our heart rate, blood pressure, motility in our GI tract, our stress response, we can reduce pain levels, and help us fall asleep with nothing but focus, breath, love, appreciation, gratitude, cookies and tacos. With HRV we can see the effect of this in an instant and it blows people’s mind. The power that we have within us to control our own body is incredible. We just need to utilize it and practice it. We cannot be good at something that we don’t practice it. The same thing goes, if you practice something the wrong way, it becomes permanent. HRV monitoring allows you to practice the right way. This can be a really powerful therapy because it can allow you to gain control of your whole body.
Back to the software. The HRV monitor can be a valuable tool in a variety of different instances. People often say, I meditate. Great!, I love it. Or, I do yoga or exercise or watch TV. What kind of effect is this actually having on our body? Is yoga actually improving your ANS balance or is it creating more stress? Is your exercise actually helping you get into a more coherent parasympathetic state?
So I encourage people to hook up to the HRV monitor in these different types of activities or when you’re doing the everyday – paying bills, watching tv, working, while you’re driving down the freeway, while you’re doing yoga or meditating so that you can actually see what your baseline is like in these activities. So that you can see, “man, I get really thrown out of whack when I’m paying bills.” Well, that’s normal, but do you have to? No. You can change it if you want to... Or “You know what, I’ve been working on this meditation practice for a while but when I looked at my HRV it showed that I was actually getting more stressed.” So we can optimize these activities and make sure we are getting what we should be out of them. This is a simple introduction about HRV monitoring and what it can do for you and your nervous system.
By: Derek Lawrence, N.D.