Address Stress by Changing your Internal Physiology

Heart Rate VariabilityTrue or False: In healthy people, the heart rate should be stable and consistent, like a metronome.


This couldn’t be further from the truth, actually. High variability between heart beats (known as Heart Rate Variability, or HRV), in which the heart rate speeds up and slows down in each breath, is a wonderful marker of good physical health and emotional resiliency.

Yes. Emotional resiliency. And it’s not just because the heart is referred to metaphorically as the centre of emotional perception. Emotions directly impact HRV. They change the pattern of the heartbeat. This patterned information is also transferred directly to the brain via a large and rather famous nerve called the vagus nerve. Our mental clarity, decision making, and memory, are all affected by the quality of the information received from the heart.


Stress is Exhausting

Your heart rate variability (HRV) reflects the balance between your fight-and-flight nervous system (sympathetic state) and your rest-and-digest nervous system (parasympathetic state). Both sides of the nervous system must be active and flexible to enable a healthy, high level of HRV. Too much stress (sympathetic activity) inhibits variability and creates a choppy, “incoherent” rhythm that sends “incoherent” information to the brain. And what do you think a brain does with incoherent information?

Sometimes, the brain registers “overwhelm” and starts diverting resources to body functions needed for survival instead of quality-of-life experiences. This might be felt as brain fog, mental fatigue, and poor memory. In other words, when under stress, our brain is impaired and less capable of storing new information, retrieving memories, or making long-term plans. And the stressful signals aren’t coming just from your brain (or your thoughts) – they’re coming from your heart.


Reducing Stress by Improving Heart Rhythm (1-2-3)

By getting the heart to send balanced, “coherent” signals to the brain, we improve our memory, focus, and ideally feel like we’re “in-the-flow” (where it’s not such an uphill battle all the time). Our energy level goes up because our physiological communication is more efficient. We can do this even when our external circumstances remain stressful.

There are a variety of techniques that can change our heart rhythm and how our brain responds to stressful situations. These techniques are NOT:

x  Relaxation exercises

x  Meditation exercises

x  Time-intensive or inherently expensive

x  Cognitive Behavioural Therapies

They’re quick exercises that you can practice in seconds and minutes regularly throughout your day to shift the impact of stress on your physical and emotional health.


Heart Rate Variability and HeartMath at KIHC

In my office I have biofeedback software that traces your heart pattern based on your heartbeat. It offers a variety of data that suggest stress or relaxation, coherence or incoherence. By applying one of many techniques, we can quickly see changes in these patterns and, with practice, patients can learn what these changes feel like in their body so that the software becomes unnecessary (i.e. you can learn to feel when your nervous system is more balanced and when your physiology is more coherent). Give these techniques a try, 3 minutes on waking and before bed, for 2 weeks:

1. Breathe in a slow, comfortable, rhythmic pattern. This affects the heart rhythm and can frequently be measured as increased heart coherence within seconds. (5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, if comfortable, is a common coherence-inducing pattern.)

2. Use imagery. When we get out of our head and into our body (or our “sensory” nervous system), our nervous system is more balanced. Some people start with imagining as though their deeper, rhythmic breaths are moving in and out of their heart area. (This is similar to some meditation techniques that have you focus on your nose or your breath while meditating. It also underscores why spending time in nature is so essential to nervous system balance.)

3. Make a genuine effort to feel (not think) a positive emotion, such as appreciation, gratitude, or caring… The biofeedback software has entertained more than 1 person who decided to call up an angry argument in their mind to see their HRV go haywire.


Dr. Sonya Nobbe is a Certified HeartMath practitioner and available for HRV sessions with KIHC clients and patients. Please speak to your practitioner about referring you over for a session or two if you’re interested in trying it out. For additional articles about this biofeedback approach, please see additional resources, here.

HeartMath, Mental health, stress

Dr. Sonya Nobbe, ND

Dr. Sonya Nobbe is a Naturopathic Doctor and Director of Kingston Integrated Healthcare Inc. She has been practicing in the Kingston area since 2007. Dr. Sonya maintains a family practice, with a clinical focus on complex chronic disease, including Lyme disease and Fibromyalgia.


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