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Optimize Physical & Emotional Well-being with HRV Biofeedback Training

A growing body of research evidence suggests training Heart Rate Coherence with biofeedback can benefit:

  • physical health (e.g. IBS)
  • emotional well-being
  • stress resilience
  • cognitive performance (e.g. focus, concentration)

In this article we address the questions, what is heart rate variability what is heart coherence, and how can heart coherence biofeedback achieve such benefits?

What Is Heart Rate Variability?

A healthy heart is actually quite variable from beat to beat - even when you're sitting still, at rest. Conversely a heart that beats like a metronome is probably dangerously unhealthy. The way I think of this perhaps surprising finding is that a healthy heart is responsive - like the engine of a fast motorbike, which revs powerfully at the slightest touch of the accelerator, and unlike a clapped-out old banger which hardly responds at all.

There are many factors that can cause the heart to respond, including emotions.

Heart Rate Variability HRV is a way of characterising just how variable or changeable heart rate is. In fact there are a number of different calculations, that can collectively be called HRV. I'm not going to go into details here but they all start with a set of "inter-beat intervals" (times between successive heart beats) and they each bring out slightly different aspects of the whole phenomenon.

HRV As A Biomarker

HRV measures have been found to correlate with a range of significant health parameters, including risk of various diseases and even overall mortality, but also performance indicators. It's definitely a good thing to have more variability. It doesn't necessarily mean that high HRV causes good health but it does mean it's a useful assessment.

It's important not to confuse HRV as a biomarker or assessment tool and HRV as a biofeedback parameter - you wouldn't want to record your HR data while doing biofeedback training and then use it for assessment in a general sense.

What Is Heart Coherence?

Heart coherence or heart rate coherence is a particular pattern of heart rate variation, where heart rate changes in sync with the breath - speeding up on the inhalation and slowing down again on the exhalation. The figure below shows the pattern graphically - the blue trace is a measure of breath and the red, heart rate.

heart coherence biofeedback screenshot

It's a natural and reflex-like phenomenon - achieving it is not a matter of effort or reasoning, but rather allowing the body to do it and not getting in the way. One of the most interesting features is that destructive emotions such as anxiety, anger and frustration can block the rhythm.

The effect is maximal at a particular rate of breathing, somewhere around 6 breaths per minute - this seems to be a kind of physiological "resonance point".

HRV Biofeedback

In HRV biofeedback we're trying to generate coherence - in other words it's really heart coherence biofeedback. There are two key factors for developing good coherence;

  • allow the breath to be slow and regular (ideally something around 6 bpm) but also natural, free and unforced.
  • let go of negative emotions like anxiety and anger and allow positive emotions to arise.

In my experience breathing is the more significant influence. In my work with stress and anxiety clients heart coherence biofeedback forms one part of an integrated biofeedback breathing training.

How Does HRV Biofeedback Help Stress, Anxiety, Focus, etc.?

To answer this question we have to understand something of the physiology underlying the coherence pattern.

Heart rate is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System - this is an automatic or non-volitional system controlling body arousal, and having two branches, known as the Sympathetic Nervoys System (which acts like the accelerator, and is responsible for "fight or flight") and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (which acts as the brake and brings about relaxation).

The parasympathetic influence is applied to the heart only during the exhalation - this is why the heart rate slows on the out-breath, in coherence. On the inhalation, the parasympathetic influence is blocked and the heart speeds up again.

In stress and anxiety, the parasympathetic NS is not active at all, so there is typically no rhythm, and it's likely that the sympathetic NS will increase HR.

Practising heart coherence is a way of exercising the parasympathetic NS. It's like weight training for the brain - in some sense you build a kind of "fitness" with regular practice, and the benefits last beyond the practice period.

Research has shown that with the parasympathetic activation comes activation of the Prefrontal Cortex - this is the part of the brain (behind your forehead) responsible for executive function (which includes focus and concentration, and also emotional regulation). This may explain how HRV biofeedback can improve mental and cognitive performance.

How You Can Access HRV & Breathing Biofeedback Training

I'm deeply inspired by the potential that biofeedback training offers and motivated to help as many people access the benefits as possible, and to make doing so as easy and convenient as possible. Whilst in an ideal world you'd probably visit my office here in York for one to one coaching, in practice that's often not possible especially if you live at a distance from me. But it doesn't mean you can't work with me.

My services are based around:

  • An online (video-based) biofeedback training course - designed to give you the key information, ideas and practices to make working with biofeedback a success. The course aims to develop emotional resilience and stress management skills, and is built around optimal breathing training, focusing on three key biofeedback parameters related to breathing, one of which is HRV.
  • Biofeedback device rental, so that you can practice at home with the three key biofeedback modalities for optimal breathing: EMG (for muscle tension), capnometry, and heart coherence.

I also offer one to one distance coaching via telephone or skype, to support my clients.

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