Stress and heart rate variabilty
HRV and the autonomic nervous system
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is considered the primitive part of your nervous system and is in control of the variation in your heartbeat (HRV). The ANS is further divided into two main branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic branch is known as the fight-or-flight mechanism, which helps your body to act and react to external stimuli and situations. On the other hand, the parasympathetic side is known as the relaxation response, also described as the “rest & digest” system. These systems function simultaneously but in opposing directions, either stimulating or suppressing the physiological response required. The ANS works on a subconscious level, which means that it is not influenced by your mind. It regulates your heart rate, breathing, digestive system and blood pressure. Although these functions are not in your direct control, they are vital to maintain a healthy body and enable optimal performance. Similarly, the ANS plays an important role with regards to the heart rate, as it is directly responsible for the stress response evoked and consequent change in HRV. When the body is faced with a stressful situation, the sympathetic branch of the ANS stimulates the production of the stress hormone cortisol and increases the heart rate. Conversely, after stressful situations or exercise, the parasympathetic system becomes dominant in order to restore homeostasis, decreasing the heart rate and slowing down the breath.
Furthermore, the HRV is the most accurate way of measuring the activity of the ANS. The beat-for-beat measurement of the heart rate allows for a conclusive insight into the functioning of the body and its state of stress. By observing the heart rate, important information about the ANS can be deduced, such as its activity levels and the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The HRV level is affected by a number of physiological phenomena, such as your breathing rate, hormonal reactions, exercise, metabolic processes, mental stress and emotional reactions. Your heart rate is constantly changing with every beat to meet the demands of daily life. Consequently, the HRV allows for a non-invasive insight into these ANS variations and detection of any imbalances. The HRV levels vary daily based on activity and stress levels, which can be internal or external. Internal stress factors include a poor diet or illness, whilst external stress factors are often work-related. Although the HRV level differs substantially between people, a low variation between heartbeats is generally related to an overly active sympathetic nervous system. As the body is in constant fight-or-flight mode, it is in a state of stress and overdrive. This is linked to a number of negative outcomes, such as chronic stress, burnout and other health issues. Conversely, a high HRV is an indicator that the parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant, which leaves the body in a mode of relaxation and recovery. This is attributed as an indicator of a healthy heart, good fitness and optimal health. Whilst heart rate variability decreases during times of stress, it increases when your body is in a state of relaxation. In essence, a healthier ANS means that you are able to “switch gears” between situations faster, which is linked to higher stress resilience and flexibility.
Heart Rate Variability and Stress
Because HRV can be measured and observed, it allows for a lifestyle insight on the body’s state of stress and recovery. First of all, a physiological model of a person is created using the heart rate variability as an indicator of the autonomic nervous system’s activity. For this reason, the heartbeat data is collected in real-time by means of HRV monitoring, which allows for an accurate and precise image of the body’s internal state. The data gathered is then converted into a series of reports, which allow for an overview of the body’s stress state over the course of the day. Consequently, these reports are analysed in order to draw conclusions about the individual’s state of coping, which is defined in terms of stress, relaxation and recovery rates. Furthermore, these reports enable the diagnosis of stress-causing events. By identifying a low HRV level at a specific time of the day, it can be deduced that the sympathetic nervous system is controlling the body and evoking stress reactions, which can be caused by internal or external stressors. Similarly, this HRV data can also be used to analyse sleep quality, physical health in terms of fitness, oxygen intake and energy expenditure.
By determining a reliable individual standard and range of physiological values for each person, these HRV measurements can then be used to draw conclusions about the person’s stress and health level. These measurements are used as a base, from which results are produced that are aimed at successfully managing the stress and its related causes. The aim is not to entirely eliminate stress from your life, but to learn how to turn negative stress into something positive, rather than let it release a frenzy of chaos inside your mind and body. The focus of HRV measurements lies on learning how to achieve a healthy balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, or between states of stimulation and relaxation. Similarly, the data is used to identify stressors, as well as draw conclusions about how your body is coping as a whole. Because once you understand the innermost workings of how your body is responding to and dealing with certain demands and events, you can use this information to become more stress resilient and increase your health. It is not about completely avoiding stress, but rather about learning how to understand your personal stress and how best to respond to it. By using HRV tracking as an insight, it becomes easier to be aware of how certain behaviour, environments and emotions affect your bodily functions and your nervous system. In essence, HRV monitoring becomes a compelling preventative tool to motivate positive health and behavioural changes.
This is where the Stress Guide App comes into play as your tool to manage and prevent stress using HRV. Using your smartphone camera, cardiovascular and HRV patterns are measured. By playing your index finger on the camera, the Stress Guide determines your stress level based on these vital measurements. With the help of our expert team of physicians and bioinformaticians, we have created a personal stress coach just for you. The measurement of your HRV yields medically accurate and vital data that is analysed to determine the best program for your needs. Not only will you learn to recognize and reduce stress factors, but you also have access to comprehensive stress analysis reports to track your progress and changing HRV measurements. Utilising your HRV measurements as a base, we create an individualized stress management program that is focused on your stress level. These individualized routes are tailored to your needs, providing you with the tools to manage your stress by cultivating healthy and positive habits. Our daily guides take you through your day, step by step, providing you with meditation, mindfulness tips and breathing exercises. Finally, learn to recognize the difference between positive and negative stress, so you can control your stress instead of it controlling you.
If you’re interested in trying our Stress Guide App to use HRV as a tool for stress management, you can download it for free and let us know if it helped you.
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