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Reducing Stress by Increasing Heart Rate Variability

When we experience stress, our body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activate to help us to respond to these stressors. Activation of the HPA axis signals the adrenal glands to release hormones like cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Activation of the SNS, or “fight or flight” response, fires nerves that cause our heart rate to rise, increases blood flow to our muscles, and increases airflow to our lungs, among other things.


These pathways are complex, and it’s important that our stress responses work well in order to manage stressful situations and that they turn off when appropriate so we can relax with normal daily activities. However, many of us experience stress responses that feel dysregulated and inappropriate. Sometimes we may be in what should be a relaxing situation, but we feel anxious. Other times, we need to respond to stressful situations, and we are overly fatigued. While there are many necessary lifestyle habits to form to regulate our stress responses, one interesting and relatively simple modification to make is to improve our heart rate variability.

A well-known vital sign is heart rate, measured in beats per minute. Heart rate variability (HRV), however, is the variation in time between heartbeats, the incremental change in duration of time from one heartbeat to the next. HRV has been found to be a significant indicator of resilience under stress, as seen in studies of its predictive factor on morbidity and mortality of patients, sports performance of athletes, and severity of mental health disorders. Intuitively, many of us would think that a more regular heartbeat, or lower HRV, would indicate a healthier response to stress, but it is actually higher HRV that has been shown to indicate a better stress response. When there is more variability in the time between heartbeats, your heart and body are more adept at responding to stressful situations that stimulate the SNS and are also quicker to recover and switch back to a resting heart rate. A higher HRV has been shown to decrease overall stress, improve athleticism, and decrease physical disease.


The reason I want to bring attention to heart rate variability is because there is one very simple daily habit you can form to increase your HRV and improve overall health and resilience against life stressors. That simple habit is to engage in diaphragmatic “belly” breathing for 10 minutes every day. Many of us naturally breathe with shallow chest breaths, but engaging our diaphragm to breathe actually increases the volume of air into our lungs and affects the way our heart responds, increasing our HRV.


My brother-in-law, Regan, works for Neuropeak Pro, a company that trains professional athletes in biofeedback exercises to increase their HRV and improve their athletic performance. Regan taught me these breathing exercises that immediately increased my HRV as measured on the Neuropeak Pro NTEL BELT:


  1. Place one hand on your abdomen, and inhale for 4 seconds through your nose while pushing your abdomen out.

  2. Hold your breath for 1 second.

  3. Exhale for 4 seconds through your nose while pulling your abdomen inward towards your spine.

  4. Hold your breath for 1 second.

  5. Repeat these steps for 10 minutes every day.


I’ve found that if I do this breathing exercise consistently, I feel much calmer throughout the day, so I wanted to share this practice in hopes others may find benefit in this quick daily exercise.

If you’d like to have professional Precision Breathing and HRV training, Neuropeak Pro provides helpful monitors and phone apps you can utilize to improve overall stress and resilience.



References


  1. Ryan ML;Ogilvie MP;Pereira BM;Gomez-Rodriguez JC;Manning RJ;Vargas PA;Duncan RC;Proctor KG; (n.d.). Heart rate variability is an independent predictor of morbidity and mortality in hemodynamically stable trauma patients. The Journal of trauma. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21817974/

  2. Sessa, F., Anna, V., Messina, G., Cibelli, G., Monda, V., Marsala, G., Ruberto, M., Biondi, A., Cascio, O., Bertozzi, G., Pisanelli, D., Maglietta, F., Messina, A., Mollica, M. P., & Salerno, M. (2018). Heart rate variability as predictive factor for sudden cardiac death. Aging, 10(2), 166–177. https://doi.org/10.18632/aging.101386

  3. Jiménez Morgan, S., & Molina Mora, J. A. (2017). Effect of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Sport Performance, a Systematic Review. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 42(3), 235–245. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-017-9364-2

  4. Schiweck, C., Piette, D., Berckmans, D., Claes, S., & Vrieze, E. (2019). Heart rate and high frequency heart rate variability during stress as biomarker for clinical depression. A systematic review. Psychological medicine, 49(2), 200–211. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291718001988

  5. Young, H. A., & Benton, D. (2018). Heart-rate variability: a biomarker to study the influence of nutrition on physiological and psychological health?. Behavioural pharmacology, 29(2 and 3-Spec Issue), 140–151. https://doi.org/10.1097/FBP.0000000000000383

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