Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Establishing New Neural Pathways
Over the past year or so, members of my gym have had a growing interest in Whoop, a device with an app that helps with recovery, athletic performance and sleep. One of the measurements this device evaluates is Heart Rate Variability or HRV.
I teach, coach & practice body-based (somatic/mindfulness) methods & lead an organization (The Institute for Generative Leadership/IGL) that educates others on these methodologies, as well. I have worked with people - including me - who have experienced various instances of trauma. In my experience the body-based approach has been more effective than cognitive-based therapies when it comes to, not only overcoming traumatic histories, but also when it comes to learning new habits.
I had just a little bit of knowledge of HRV before getting the whoop. Through conversations with my CrossFit coaches Andy and Zack, by listening to the whoop podcasts, & upon revisiting some of my trauma reference books, I have a little more understanding of it. I’m going to give it a go here.
When our hrv is high, it indicates our nervous system’s ability to respond to, & navigate external stress. From what I know about the nervous system, the sympathetic part of our nervous system is where our fight/flight reactions happen. This is based on our personal & unique interpretation & filtering of stress that evolved from our childhood & individual histories. When I say “personal & unique” I mean this: I may react to someone yelling or threatening me by fighting back, where someone else may react to that same person yelling at them by running away (fleeing), or perhaps by learning to be with the yelling until the person calms down. These are learned & adopted reactions that unconsciously occur as a safety defense mechanism from youth. This is learned from the house, school or community we lived in.
When our sympathetic (fight/flight) kicks in, it’s a reaction that comes from that history. It wasn’t learned intentionally, it’s our body’s amazing way to keep us alive, safe, & to get the acceptance & love of adults / peers in our lives when we were kids. As adults many of these patterns are no longer necessary for keeping us safe (because our situations have changed), yet we continue certain patterns of reaction through the neuronal pathways that have been reinforced over time.
A way to look at it: Events in themselves don’t have emotional value. We are the ones who attribute/learn the emotional value to external situations. That’s why someone may stay calm when someone else freaks out during an external event. It’s a learned behavior from our history.
The parasympathetic part of our nervous system is where our rest, digest, healing, self-care happens.
When we become aware of the fear, anxiety, extreme joy that is activated from an external event, we can learn to choose & respond rather than react. One way is through breath.
Ideally, HRV is a high number because that reflects our ability to adapt to external stress. If HRV is low often, we are in either the sympathetic part of our nervous system for too long or parasympathetic nervous system for too long. In my experience, people (of all ages) are prone to activation of the sympathetic part with our busy technologically omnipresent & work accessibility through smartphones 24 hours a day lives.
If increasing HRV is a goal, a way to increase HRV (& will affect & lower resting heart rate, as well) is by disrupting habitual patterns when reacting to stress.
First, sleep and hydration always - Second, by noticing breathing patterns. If there’s high stress, we’re in sympathetic / activation. Our breathing is high (& our brain is busy with lots of thoughts). Anxiety mounts. By noticing breathing patterns when we’re not in stress, we are creating new neural patterns that will become a new pattern (aka a new habit). When we are in the practice of dropping our breath to our abdomen by taking in a few deep breaths & exhaling deeply, the deeper abdomen exhalations shift us to the parasympathetic part of our nervous system. When we become practiced in this awareness, we’re better able to access calm, deep breaths when stress or pressure comes.
Stress can be in the form of an angry email, an upcoming interaction with an unreasonable relative or colleague, internal anxiety about double under jump rope learning or worry that we can’t ever learn a squat snatch! If we are already in the practice of dropping our breath & taking longer exhales, we’ll be able to access this in the above situations. This can be done by setting a phone alarm for a few times a day & taking 20 seconds when the alarm goes off to drop & deepen breath With long exhales. After a week, increase to 5x/day & 25 seconds. This is training the body to learn how to shift from reaction & anxiety mounting in the head to giving the brain a break & deepening into the wisdom of body (replenishes energy & helps ward off sickness).
We are shaped by our past & develop certain patterns that keep us safe. That doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t learn new patterns.
If you want to nerd out & learn a bit more there’s a webinar from a leading trauma & body-based somatic therapist at the link below. HeartMath is also an app. I have not used it but I saw it referenced in one of my books called “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk
Please, real quick after reading this through, share your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear from you!