Heart Rate Variability Training is a body-based technique that can facilitate emotional regulation and improve wellbeing. When you stop to reflect, most emotional and psychological distress we experience stems from our emotions being out of control: panic and high anxiety or rumination are obvious examples. Depression and melancholy are also emotion regulation problems at the other end of the spectrum. Many people find it hard to change their emotions on demand. That’s where heart rate variability training comes in.
What is HRV?
HRV is simply a measure of the naturally occurring variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works outside our conscious awareness and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response.
Why is HRV Important?
Our heart and our brain interact, share information and influence each other. Most people are under the impression that our brain is the ‘master control’ that dictates how the heart should behave. However, it is the heart that actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! These heart signals impact brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.
During episodes of stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This negatively impacts our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (Think of when you may have acted impulsively and unwisely when you have been under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.
On the other hand, in a positive emotional state, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain has the opposite effect – it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.
So, while it is difficult for many people to calm their mind on demand and settle their emotions, this heart-brain connection can be used to create those desired changes using basic biofeedback.
How do We Use Heart Rate Variability Training?
There are two aspects in the application of HRV training. The first is a breathing element. You will be coached in paced breathing at about six breathes per minute. But HRV training should not be thought of simply as breathing exercises. The second element is the focus on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive emotional state. This emotional shift is a key element of the techniques effectiveness. Positive emotions appear to excite the system at its natural resonant frequency and thus enable coherence to emerge and to be maintained naturally, without conscious mental focus on one’s breathing rhythm.
The combination of slow, paced breathing and heartfelt positive emotion generates a much wider array of benefits than those typically achieved through breathing alone. These include deeper perceptual and emotional changes, increased access to intuition and creativity, cognitive and performance improvements, and favorable changes in hormonal balance.
The following video provides a sound and accurate orientation.