No matter how much stress you had in your life before 2020, the pandemic has put everyone on edge. If you’re like most people, you may have relied on one or more of the go-to approaches to tamping down that stress—mental imagery, journaling, knitting, reading a novel…you name it.
What you may not realize: The most widely used calming activities are based on the belief that stress lives in your brain, and if you can just think your way through it or distract yourself from it, it will improve.
But here’s a secret that can revolutionize the way you deal with stress—it actually lives in your body, not in your brain. To tap into your body’s hidden calming capacities, one of the most effective self-regulation approaches is to train your heart rate variability (HRV).
Here’s what you need to know about training your heart to ease day-to-day stress…
WHAT IS HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
Most people think that the heart beats with the regularity of a metronome. But the truth is, when you inhale, your heart rate naturally quickens…and when you exhale, it slows down. The result is a slight variation in the time between heartbeats—so slight that it’s measured in milliseconds.
The degree to which the heart rate accelerates on inhalation and decelerates on exhalation varies from person to person. The more variation you have in those intervals—your HRV—the better. Too little variation suggests a condition called sympathetic dominance, meaning that the nervous system is essentially stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Sympathetic dominance is all too common today.
The goal is to balance the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system—the “rest and digest” or “tend and befriend” branch that handles day-to-day vitals such as digestion, along with helping the body relax and de-stress. When balanced, HRV is high, reflecting a strong ability to tolerate and bounce back from stress.
THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT HRV
Just as HRV responds to everyday life’s stressors, it also can be significantly improved by strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system to assist your body in handling stress. Result: Higher HRV…improved health and longevity…and a happier you.
In addition to mental and emotional resilience, high HRV is linked to a host of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, lower rates of depression and more. In fact, research has shown that HRV is a more accurate predictor of future cardiac events in people who don’t have heart disease than cholesterol, blood pressure or resting heart rate.
To track your HRV, you can use an HRV sensor, which usually comes as a chest-strap monitor…a fitness tracker, some of which have a wristband embedded with a sensor…or a fingerprint-scanning app.
Even though it can be interesting to have an exact measurement, most people can safely assume that they need to improve their HRV. The breath-pacing exercises below are easy and highly effective for most people.
WAYS TO BOOST YOUR HRV
Inreasing evidence shows that HRV can help anyone improve his/her physical and mental health—often by practicing for 20 minutes twice a day for four weeks. After 10 weeks of practicing at this frequency, you’ll develop a reflex that kicks in during moments of stress to help you reset and recover. Here’s how…
Step 1: Change your breathing. Instead of breathing at a rate of 12 breaths per minute—as most adults do—slow it down. Breathing at a rate of approximately six breaths per minute triggers a systemwide relaxation response.
Inhale through your nose for four counts, filling your belly with air, and exhale for six counts through pursed lips, as if you’re blowing on hot soup. Belly breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nerve receptors found in the lower lungs, helping to spread a sense of calm throughout the body and mind. When you breathe only into your chest, those lower-lung receptors go untouched.
Start with 10 minutes twice a day. Helpful: Try a free app, such as Awesome Breathing. For maximum benefits, work your way up to 20 minutes twice a day. Don’t try this while reading, watching TV or listening to music. For best results, forgo other sources of stimulation and enjoy the feeling of your breath.
Fascinating research: Reciting the “Ave Maria” or a mantra can slow breathing to almost precisely six breath cycles per minute, according to a study published in BMJ. This may be one reason why people find the recitation of these words to be calming—it improves HRV.
Step 2: Don’t skimp on cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular fitness and HRV are strongly correlated—the fitter your heart, the higher your HRV. Follow the guidelines for physical activity—150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (challenging enough that you can carry on a conversation but not sing) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (you can’t say more than a few words without having to catch your breath).
Helpful: Try to incorporate some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, which alternate quick, intense bursts of cardio exercise with periods of low-intensity activity. Research shows that HIIT has even better potential for improving your body’s response to stress because alternating the intensity of your
workout challenges your nervous system. Start out with a 1:2 ratio—run for one minute then walk for two, and repeat… or go all-out on the elliptical for 30 seconds, then slow down for a minute, and repeat. Most people can aim for a 10- to 20-minute HIIT session.
Step 3: Practice “emotional pivoting.” The next time you’re feeling stressed—after a difficult conversation with a coworker, for example—try this mind-body strategy. Think back to a time in your life when you felt an incredible amount of love, gratitude, awe and/ or safety. Take 10 breaths, focusing on the positive experience as you inhale for four counts through your nose. Really try to connect to the memory, almost as if you’re reliving it. Exhale through your mouth for six seconds, releasing any anxiety, stress or fear along with your breath. Do this for about five minutes after a stressful situation. With practice, this can help improve your HRV, allowing you to easily pivot away from negative emotional states.
Step 4: Limit those cups of joe. Getting too much caffeine—for example, three or more cups of coffee a day—can reduce HRV. That’s because excess caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Helpful: Consider swapping your coffee for green tea. It has less caffeine than coffee, so it’s energizing without feeling overly stimulating. Green tea also contains an active compound called L-theanine, which can boost your HRV by increasing production of various calming neurochemicals while lowering levels of stress-producing brain chemicals.
Step 5: Try cold therapy. Exposure to a cold temperature can increase HRV. Though no one knows exactly why, it’s often attributed to a physiological survival mechanism called the “diving reflex,” which kicks in when a person dives into cold water. The body responds to this sudden underwater immersion by conserving oxygen (via decreased heart rate) and prioritizing blood flow to the heart and brain. Don’t worry—you don’t need to sign up for a local polar bear plunge. You can trigger the diving reflex by splashing very cold water on your forehead, cheeks and nose. Try this before your breathing practice to jump-start your HRV.