fbpx

Measure Anxiety in Your Nervous System With Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

In the last video we talked about biofeedback for anxiety. In this video we’re going to dive a little deeper into heart rate variability and how you can use it to improve anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and a bunch of other health concerns. You’re going to learn what tools you can use to measure HRV. You’ll learn about coherence or resonant frequency and one specific skill that improves HRV and anxiety.

Anxiety is not just in your head. It’s in your body, and specifically it’s triggered in your nervous system. Today we’re going to talk about how you can use heart rate variability as one way to get a numerical measure of how resilient your nervous system is and how you can use HRV to actually train your nervous system to calm anxiety more efficiently.

In the last video we talked about biofeedback for anxiety. In this video we’re going to dive a little deeper into heart rate variability and how you can use it to improve anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and a bunch of other health concerns. 

You’re going to learn what tools you can use to measure HRV. You’ll learn about coherence or resonant frequency and one specific skill that improves HRV and anxiety. 

Heart Rate Variability Defined

When we talk about heart rate, it’s a measure of your average beats per minute. If your heart rate is 60bpm, that means that on average your heart is beating one beat per second.  

But over the course of one minute, your heart is going to speed up and slow down. If you watched my previous video on biofeedback, you learned that when you breathe in your heart beats faster, and when you breathe out slowly your heart beats more slowly. That’s HRV. It’s the measure of how much difference there is between your fast heart beats and your slow ones. 

But HRV is much cooler than that. HRV is basically a measure of how good your nervous system is at adapting, at its ability to switch between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. 

So a higher heart rate variability means that you’re healthier; you’re more resilient and able to adapt to circumstances and calm yourself down. 

Learning to improve your HRV can help with anxiety, stress, depression, getting into the flow, and performing. It can help with chronic pain management and help kids with bellyaches and overall gut health. Elite athletes use HRV to tell when they’re ready to do another hard workout, and high-performing professionals use it to manage stress. 

So why is this so important? It comes down to your nervous system.

Two States of the ANS

Your heart rate is determined by the autonomic nervous system. This subconscious part of your nervous system handles 90% of your body’s functioning, including your stress response, digestion, immune system, and so much more. 

The autonomic nervous system has two main states, FFF and rest and digest. When your body senses a threat or a need to perform, it kicks on the sympathetic state, FFF. Stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol increase heart rate, send blood to the big muscles, and make you start sweating to cool down, which is why your hands get cold and clammy. 

This activated state is great in small doses. It helps you take action, get excited, perform, etc. But if you can’t calm down, you get stuck in chronic stress, which is not great. This can lead to problems with your immune system, your gut, and muscle tension and overall makes your body less healthy. 

But your body and nervous system have a natural counterbalancing response: the parasympathetic response, also known as the rest-and-digest response. You relax. Your body heals and digests and turns on the immune system. Your nervous system pumps out acetylcholine to decrease heart rate, and it turns on peristalsis, which helps your digestion. 

High HRV

HRV is essentially a numerical measure of how good you are at switching between being in the sympathetic and parasympathetic state. 

Having a high HRV means that your body is healthy and adaptable. Your nervous system is healthy and can turn on when needed and relax when needed. High HRV can feel like a flow state where you’re engaged, active, clear-headed. 

Controlled studies show that high HRV improves anxiety, depresion, asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, sleep, etc. 

People with high HRV are better at regulating their emotions, controlling their impulses, and processing information. 

Low HRV

But if your HRV is constantly low, it means that your body is probably stuck in alert mode or stress mode, that your body is devoting resources to performance instead of healing, digestion, or immune system. 

Sometimes this is a good thing — like if you’re running a race, you want to stay in the sympathetic state the whole time. But if you’re trying to relax and just can’t, this isn’t great. This can lead to chronic stress or exhaustion. 

Trauma, PTSD and chronic stress can lead to lower HRV, which makes sense — you’re often stuck in a sympathetic state. 

It’s also possible to get stuck in the parasympathetic state or freeze mode, feeling frozen or trapped there, unable to get motivated or activated. 

Low HRV is associated with cancer, inflammation, blood pressure, chronic stress pain, low emotional flexibility, depression, anxiety, and quicker aging.

There are a lot of factors that impact your HRV, things like age, physical fitness, alcohol use, sleep, nutrition, stress, and genetics. But you can learn to improve your HRV using some really simple exercises. 

Improving HRV

HRV is used as a health marker and generally decreases with age. It’s a measure of vagal tone. As we’ve talked about in other videos, your vagus nerve helps turn on that parasympathetic response, the calming response, and you can train your vagus nerve to be stronger. 

Practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and breathwork are all ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, but HRV gives you a way to see, to quantify, the effectiveness of those techniques. You can see on a screen what’s physically going on with your body. 

Thanks to this measure, researchers have been able to find out which aspect of these exercises is most effective. And while they all have various benefits, slow-paced breathing is one of the most effective ways to improve your HRV. 

It’s as simple as breathing at around six breaths per minute — that means five seconds in and five seconds out. Breathing at this slow rate can get you into a state of cardiac coherence. 

Coherence

Cardiac coherence is when your body’s systems take on a smooth, steady, synchronized wave.

Normally your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all have an oscillation or wave. 

Your breathing rate goes in and out. Your heart rate goes up and down. And your baroreflex — essentially your blood pressure — also goes up and down. 

When we’re stressed, each of these systems is kind of doing its own thing — they’re all going off at different times.

But when you get into cardiac coherence, your heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure all sync up, and they smoothly interact with each other. When they all get in sync, it’s called the resonance frequency. For most people, this is at about .1Hz. And when you do this, you’re basically telling your body “you’re safe; you can calm down,” and it tells your nervous system to turn on that rest-and-digest response. 

The easiest way to achieve this is through resonance frequency breathing, which is basically slowing down your breathing to match your heart rate. You can feel it when you get this: your body feels calmer, more centered, more settled. Just writing this video reminded me to breathe more slowly, which settled me over and over. 

This can get really technical, and if you want to learn more, definitely check out the work by Dr. Gevirtz. He’s put years of study into this. 

Here’s an image from one of his publications showing how the breathing and heart rate get into sync. You can see the heart rate changing in this sine-wave pattern and the breathing syncing up with it, and everything just kind of smooths out. This is good. It’s good for your body and your mind. 

Checking Your HRV

The easiest way to check your heart rate variability is to buy a bluetooth heart rate monitor and use the free app Elite HRV. 

You can also kinda measure HRV with an Apple watch. Although it isn’t as accurate or responsive, it might be able to give you an idea of your HRV without buying something new. I’ll link to an article below if you want to learn how to set that up. 

But if you’d like to actively learn how to improve your HRV and reach that resonant frequency, the most accessible way is through a program like HeartMath or Flowly. 

Flowly is a VR system with a heart rate monitor that walks you through the process of finding your resonant frequency. This app was funded by a grant from the NIH, and it gradually teaches you how to soothe your nervous system by giving you feedback on what your state is. As you get into a flow state, the scenery changes around you and encourages you to keep going. 

Flowly is not a sponsor, but they did send me the equipment for free, and I really like what they’re doing.

Summary

You can learn to turn on your parasympathetic response. You can learn to train yourself to resolve stress, to strengthen your vagal tone, and this can have wide-ranging positive impacts from lowering anxiety, improving depression, and lots of physical health benefits. 

One of the best things about HRV is that for the logical, quantitative-minded soul, it gives you a concrete measurement of how you’re doing. It gives you graphs and charts and a visual for how well you’re doing instead of this kind of fuzzy idea of “meditation is good for you.” So if you’d like to try resonant frequency breathing or learn more about your HRV, then check out some of the resources below. 

And, as always, thanks for being here. I love my audience, all you people who are trying to learn new things and improve your lives. Keep up the good work. 

More To Explore

Skill #28 Fostering a Growth Mindset

In this post you’re going to learn how to tell if you have a growth or a fixed mindset, how to develop a growth mindset

Skill #27 Get Rid of Self-Limiting Beliefs

In this post you’re going to learn how to let go of self-limiting beliefs, how to stop labeling yourself, how to stop getting stuck hating

Free Download

Discover a life free from anxiety with this Big List of Coping Skills