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Heart Rate Variability (HRV) & Mental Health 🧠
A New Dimension to Understanding and Improving Your Mental and Emotional Health (5min Read)
HRV measures heartbeat intervals, reflecting mental and emotional health.
It's influenced by age, sex, fitness, and overall health.
Monitoring HRV aids trauma healing and mental health improvement.
Enhancing HRV involves exercise, mindful breathing, quality sleep, trauma release, and biofeedback training.
HRV usage is about resilience-building and body understanding, not a quick fix.
As you know, I love combining science and technology, and that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about today.
Specifically about, heart rate variability (HRV) and its correlation with mental and emotional health.
In fact, I’ve been using HRV scores to aid in the work that I do with my clients struggling with Complex PTSD for years now.
Each of my clients gets a biometric device when they start our Me 2.0 Program that monitors their biometric data 24/7 throughout the program.
And the most important metric I pay attention to is their HRV score!
So, today, I wanted to break down what HRV is, and why it’s so important when it comes to your mental and emotional health.
Let’s dive in!
What is Heart Rate Variability?
HRV, simply put, is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats.
Although it might sound counterintuitive, a high HRV is actually a good sign—it's an indication of a healthy, responsive nervous system that can adapt efficiently to stress.
On the neurobiological level, HRV is closely tied to the function of the autonomic nervous system, particularly the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body's "fight-or-flight" response, while the parasympathetic nervous system promotes "rest-and-digest" or "feed-and-breed" activities.
I know you’ve heard me talk about these two systems extensively, but today, it’s not just talk, we can objectively measure them!
Autonomic Nervous System Health
That being said, HRV can be thought of as a reflection of our autonomic nervous system's adaptability and the mind, brain & body's overall health.
From our gut health to hormonal balance, to our immune response, all of these systems play a role in our mental well-being, and they are all influenced by our autonomic nervous system.
Harnessing HRV's potential is like gaining a new language—one that allows you to communicate with your body, understand its needs, and respond appropriately.
By combining this biological insight with mind-body therapies like IFS (Internal Family Systems), you can learn to effectively identify, understand, and manage your internal "parts" that carry trauma or anxiety, and how this affects your HRV.
This is exactly what I do when working with my clients.
I’ve found that people struggling with Complex PTSD or burnout often don’t realize the effect this kind of trauma is having on their body.
That is until I show them their HRV scores & how it correlates to how they are feeling, mentally, physically & emotionally.
Using HRV to Heal
Hopefully, you can see that by monitoring HRV, we can gain insights into this physiological interplay and use it to our advantage on our healing journey.
One of my favorite stories about this was with one of my clients, Emily, whose name I changed for privacy purposes.
After escaping an abusive relationship, Emily experienced crippling anxiety and a lingering sense of fear, indicative of an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Utilizing HRV as a biometric measure of her stress levels, we were able to see that her HRV scores were very low, a clear sign of overactivation of her sympathetic response.
It was this objective, quantifiable data that helped Emily realize the physical manifestation of her emotional turmoil.
It was quite an emotional moment we had when she realized how what she went through was affecting her under the surface, even if she appeared calm, cool, and collected on the surface.
Based on this data, I had her begin adding habits & routines into her life that would help her bring up her HRV, more on these in a moment.
We also started mapping out her traumatized Parts using Internal Family Systems to release some of the trauma stored in her body.
By doing these things, we began to paint a new picture of her heart's rhythm, demonstrating a progressively healthier HRV.
Emily's story isn't unique, I do this with clients all the time.
With an HRV monitor like Whoop or Apple Watch, anyone can tap into their heart's language and utilize it for improving mental and emotional health.
Ideal HRV Ranges
So, let’s pretend you’re already measuring your HRV, what’s an ideal range to gauge your health?
HRV is tracked in milliseconds (ms) and is influenced by myriad factors such as age, sex, fitness level, and overall health.
It is a personalized marker and can greatly differ from one individual to another.
There's no universally 'good' or 'bad' HRV.
The key is understanding your own unique HRV baseline and tracking changes over time.
That being said, when we look at the research, like the "2019 Heart Rate Variability Normative Values" study, we can find some general guidelines for HRV norms.
According to this large-scale study:
Age 20-25: 55-105 ms for men and 45-90 ms for women
Age 35-45: 40-70 ms for men and 35-60 ms for women
Age 55-65: 30-55 ms for men and 25-45 ms for women
It's important to note that a higher HRV is generally seen as a positive indicator of health, reflecting a more responsive autonomic nervous system.
However, excessively high HRV can sometimes suggest health concerns, so it's crucial to consider these values in the context of your overall health and lifestyle.
Age is a significant factor in HRV, with scores naturally declining as we grow older due to physiological changes.
Something to keep in mind is that the true power of HRV lies not in comparing your values with others but in monitoring your own scores over time.
Observing how your HRV changes in response to various lifestyle modifications—such as better sleep, mindfulness practices, changes in diet, therapy, or increased physical activity is key!
Alright, let's talk about how to effectively enhance your HRV with simple, actionable practices that can easily be integrated into your daily routine!
1. Engage in Regular Aerobic Exercise: Just like toning a muscle, exercising your heart can help improve your HRV.
2. Practice Mindful Breathing: I suggest Heart Coherence Breathing, which I talked about in my recent blog about breathing techniques to combat anxiety. This can stimulate your vagus nerve and enhance your HRV.
3. Prioritize Quality Sleep: Good sleep hygiene is crucial for optimal HRV. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night.
4. Releasing Trauma from the Body: As I mentioned in my story about Emily, once we started diving under the surface, and started releasing pent-up trauma from her body, here HRV scores improved dramatically! If you’d like to learn more about this, you can book an intro call below.
5. Embrace Biofeedback Training: This emerging tool uses real-time displays of physiological information to promote voluntary control over your body's functions. This allows you to see how changes in behavior, like stress reduction exercises or different sleeping habits, affect your HRV.
Remember, using HRV for improving your mental health is not a quick fix but a journey.
It's about building resilience, gaining insights into your body's unique language, and using this knowledge to heal and grow.
As always, reach out if you need help along the way.
And until next time, Live Heroically 🧠
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