Heart-Rate Variability (HRV), is a measure of the naturally occurring beat-to-beat
changes in heart rate. HRV analysis is a powerful, noninvasive measure of autonomic
nervous-system function and an indicator of neurocardic fitness. The HeartMath Research
Center maintains an extensive HRV normals database, which provides data on the HRV
of healthy individuals. HeartMath has published research demonstrating how HRV varies
with age and gender and on the use of HRV analyses to assess alterations in autonomic
function in conditions such as panic disorder and chronic fatigue.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) (or visceral nervous system) is the part of the
peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system, maintaining homeostasis
in the body. These activities are generally performed without conscious control.
The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration,
diameter of the pupils, urination and sexual arousal. Whereas most of its actions
are involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) can be divided by subsystems into the sympathetic
nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. ANS can also be divided functionally,
into its sensory and motor systems. Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically
function in opposition to each other. This opposition is better understood as complementary
in nature rather than antagonistic. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic
division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic
division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic
division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction. The main
actions of the parasympathetic nervous system are summarized by the phrase "rest
and repose" (in contrast to the "fight-or-flight" of the sympathetic nervous system).
121 Neurofeedback Services & Brainhealth offers Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training:
This is achieved by placing a sensor on either your index finger or your earlobe.
Once attached you are presented with a computer screen to watch either a video or
your heart rate pulses. By using relaxation techniques you can “learn” how to adjust
the relationships between HRV, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems.
Benefit of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training & HRV Therapy:
Recent studies at the Alliant International University, San Diego, CA, USA have found
a significant association between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and low Heart Rate
Variability (HRV), as a biomarker of autonomic deregulation. However when you achieve
autonomic nervous system balance with HRV training that will enable you to perform
more effectively and allows for more normal cognitive processing and stress reduction
allowing you to self create improved coping strategies and calmness in your life.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training & HRV Therapy?
Heart Rate Variability training therapy (HRV training) involves the use of biofeedback,
computerised equipment, to control heart rate variability (HRV) - the moment-to-moment
change in heart rate. The skills learned with the use of the biofeedback can be
practiced for relaxation and can be used as a stress management tool during daily
activities. However, the program is much more than a simple relaxation technique,
you will learn to appreciate yourself, how to substitute stressful responses with
more positive emotions.
What is the background of Heart Rate Variability Training?
As discussed above stress
stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and relaxation
or positive emotions involve the parasympathetic system. Research has shown a direct
connection between the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of the Autonomic
Nervous System (ANS) and your physical and mental health. Any prolonged in-balance
of the ANS leads to problems such as heart disease, hypertension, depression, and
anxiety. Research has shown that there appears to be a two-way communication system
between the brain and the nerves surrounding the heart which affects the body's stress
hormones and immune system.
Research has shown that HRV training helps the individual better manage stress and
anxiety and improve work satisfaction and performance. In the case of athletes, sports
performance can also be improved.
Note: Warnings for HRV training?
There are no specific warning against HRV training,
however if you are actively suicidal or psychotic you may require a more intensive
level of psychiatric care. A Brainhealth clinical assessment will advise you if HRV
training is for you.
HRV patterns associated with a stress response may be a risk factor for complications
in cardiac arrhythmia's (irregular heartbeat) patients and further research is being
conducted into the role of HRV training for these patients.
The Science behind Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training:
The Heart–Brain Connection:
of us believe that the heart is constantly responding to “requests” sent by the brain
in the form of nerve signals. However, what is not as commonly known is that the
heart actually sends signals to the brain that have a significant effect on brain
function. For example, the heart effects the brain when we process emotions, attention,
perception, memory, and problem-solving.
Not only does the heart respond to the brain the brain continuously responds to the
Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath have demonstrated that different patterns
of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects
on higher mental and emotional functions. When we are under stress or experiencing
negative emotions, the heart rhythm pattern becomes erratic and disordered and the
corresponding pattern of nerve signals travelling from the heart to the brain blocks
higher mental functions.
The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound
effect on the brain’s emotional processes that actually serves to reinforce the negative
emotional experience of stress. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember,
learn, reason, and make effective decisions and as a result you may act impulsively
When we feel good, the heart’s input to the brain is more ordered and stable which
improves higher mental function and hence reinforces positive feelings and emotional
stability. This means that by learning to generate heart rhythm coherence, we learn
to sustain positive emotions, which not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly
affects how we perceive, think, feel, perform and make decisions.
Your Heart’s Changing Rhythm:
The heart at rest was once thought to operate much like a metronome, faithfully beating
out a regular, steady rhythm. However rather than being monotonously regular, the
rhythm of a healthy heart - even under resting conditions is actually surprisingly
irregular, with the interval between consecutive heartbeats constantly changing.
This naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in heart rate is called heart rate
variability (HRV) and is a measure of the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate.
The normal variability in heart rate is due to the joint action of the two branches
of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) - the part of the nervous system that regulates
most of the body’s internal functions. The sympathetic nerves act to speed up heart
rate, while the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves slow it down. The sympathetic and
parasympathetic branches of the ANS constantly interact to maintain cardiovascular
activity in its optimal range and to allow appropriate reactions to changing external
and internal conditions. Analysis of HRV therefore gives us a dynamic window into
the function and balance of the autonomic nervous system.
The moment-to-moment variations in heart rate are generally overlooked when average
heart rate is measured: for example, when your doctor takes your pulse over a certain
period of time and calculates that your heart is beating at, say, 85 beats per minute.
However using state-of-the-art Brainhealth emWave technology you can observe your
heart’s changing rhythms in real time. Using your pulse data, it provides a picture
of your HRV - plotting the natural increases and decreases that occur in your heart
rate on a continual basis.
Why is Heart Rate Variability Important?
Doctors and scientists consider HRV to be
an important indicator of health and fitness. It acts as a marker of our physiological
resilience and behavioural flexibility and reflects our ability to adapt effectively
to stress and environmental demands.
HRV is also a marker of biological aging. Our heart rate variability is greatest
when we are young, and as we age the range of variation in our resting heart rate
becomes smaller. Although the age-related decline in HRV is a natural process, having
abnormally low HRV for one’s age group is associated with increased risk of future
health problems and premature mortality. Low HRV is also observed in individuals
with a wide range of diseases and disorders. By reducing stress-induced wear and
tear on the nervous system and facilitating the body’s natural regenerative processes,
regular practice of cardiac coherence-building techniques can help restore HRV to
Heart Rhythm Patterns and Emotions:
Many factors affect the activity of the ANS, and
therefore influence HRV. These include our breathing patterns, physical exercise,
and even our thoughts. Research at the Institute of HeartMath has shown that one
of the most powerful factors that affect our heart’s changing rhythm is our feelings
When our varying heart rate is plotted over time, the overall shape of the waveform
produced is called the heart rhythm pattern. The emWave PC, allows you to see your
heart rhythm pattern in real time. Research has found that the emotions we experience
directly affect our heart rhythm pattern which in turn, tells us much about how our
body is functioning.
In general, emotional stress and other emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety
gives rise to heart rhythm patterns that are irregular and erratic: the HRV waveform
looks like a series of uneven or jagged peaks. (see graph).
Scientists call this an incoherent heart rhythm pattern which indicates that the
signals produced by the two branches of the ANS are out of sync with each other.
This is like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator (the sympathetic nervous
system) and the other on the brake (the parasympathetic nervous system) at the same
time - this conflict between go and stop or flight and digest creates a bumpy ride
and burns more fuel. Likewise, the incoherent heart rhythm patterns associated with
stressful emotions can cause our body to operate inefficiently, ineffective digestion
and repair, deplete our energy, and produce extra wear and tear on our whole system.
This is especially true if stress and negative emotions are prolonged or experienced
In contrast, positive emotions send a very different signal throughout our body.
When we experience uplifting emotions such as appreciation, joy, care, and love;
our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious
wave (see graph). This is called a coherent heart rhythm pattern and indicates that
the activity in the two branches of the ANS is synchronized and the body’s systems
are operating with increased efficiency and harmony. It’s no wonder that positive
emotions feel so good - they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work
Heart rhythm patterns during different emotional states:
These graphs show examples
of real-time heart rate variability patterns (heart rhythms) recorded from individuals
experiencing different emotions. The incoherent heart rhythm pattern shown in the
top graph, characterized by its irregular, jagged waveform, is typical of stress
and negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety. The bottom graph shows
an example of the coherent heart rhythm pattern that is typically observed when an
individual is experiencing a sustained positive emotion. The coherent pattern is
characterized by its regular, sine-wave-like waveform.
Coherence - A State of Optimal Function:
The Institute of HeartMath’s research has
shown that generating sustained positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to
a specific, scientifically measurable state. This state is termed psycho physiological
coherence, and is a state of optimal function characterised by increased order and
harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily)
processes i.e. where the mind and body are working in a state of optimal function.
Research shows that when we activate this state, our physiological systems function
more efficiently, we experience greater emotional stability, and we also have increased
mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain
work better, we feel better, and we perform better.
Physiologically, the coherence state is marked by the development of a smooth, sine-wave-like
pattern in the heart rate variability trace. This characteristic pattern, called
heart rhythm coherence, is the primary indicator of the psycho physiological coherence
state, and is what the emWave PC measures and quantifies. A number of important physiological
changes occur during coherence. The two branches of the ANS synchronize with one
another, and there is an overall shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic
activity leading to synchronization between the activity of the heart and brain.
Note: Coherence Is Not Just Relaxation! It is increased harmony and synchronization
in the nervous system and heart–brain connection:
It is important to note that the
state of coherence is both psychologically and physiologically distinct from the
state achieved through most relaxation techniques. At the physiological level, relaxation
is characterized by an overall reduction in autonomic outflow (resulting in lower
HRV) and a shift in ANS balance towards increased parasympathetic activity. Coherence
is associated with a relative increase in parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing
a key element of the relaxation response, but is physiologically different from relaxation
in that the system oscillates at its natural resonant frequency and there is increased
harmony and synchronization in the nervous system and heart–brain connection.
There are fundamental physiological differences between relaxation and coherence,
but the psychological characteristics of these states are also quite different. Relaxation
is a low-energy state in which the individual rests both the body and mind, typically
disengaging from cognitive and emotional processes.
In contrast, coherence generally involves the active engagement of positive emotions.
Psychologically, coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energised and
responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including
the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making,
as well as physical activity and coordination.
The Role of Breathing:
Another important distinction involves understanding the role
of breathing, or the science of breath, in the generation of coherence and its relationship
to HRV training. Breathing patterns modulate the heart’s rhythm, it is possible to
generate a coherent heart rhythm simply by breathing slowly and regularly at a 10-second
rhythm (5 seconds on the in-breath and 5 seconds on the out-breath). Breathing rhythmically
in this fashion can be a useful intervention to shift out of stressful emotional
state and into increased coherence. However, this type of cognitively-directed paced
breathing can require considerable mental effort and is difficult for some people
While the techniques used in HRV training incorporates a breathing element, paced
breathing is not the primary focus and the techniques used should therefore not be
thought of simply as a breathing exercise. Unlike commonly practised breathing techniques
HRV training focuses on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive emotional
state. This emotional shift is a key element of HRV training 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.
This is because input generated by the heart’s rhythmic activity is actually one
of the main factors that affect our breathing rate and patterns. When the heart’s
rhythm shifts into coherence as a result of a positive emotional shift, our breathing
rhythm automatically synchronizes with the heart, thereby reinforcing and stabilising
the shift to system-wide coherence.
Additionally, the positive emotional focus of HRV training confers a much wider range
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 favourable changes in hormonal balance.
With HRV training you will learn how to self-activate and eventually sustain a positive
emotion. A useful training aid to help you achieve and maintain coherence when you
start this therapy is to practice heart-focused breathing at a 10-second rhythm.
Once you grow accustomed to generating coherence through rhythmic breathing and become
familiar with how this state feels, you can then begin to practice breathing a positive
feeling or attitude through the heart area in order to enhance your experience. Eventually,
with continual practice, most people become able to shift into coherence just by
activating a positive emotion.
The Heart Own Mind?
Many of the changes in bodily function that occur during the coherence
state revolve around changes in the heart’s pattern of activity. The heart has been
defined as only that of pumping blood. Historically, in almost every culture of the
world, the heart was given a far more multifaceted role in the human system, being
regarded as a source of wisdom, spiritual insight, thought, and emotion.
However, recent scientific research has begun to provide evidence that many of these
beliefs about the heart may well be more than simply metaphorical.
These developments have led science once again to revise and expand its understanding
of the heart and its role.
The heart possesses its own intrinsic nervous system, a network of nerves so functionally
sophisticated containing over 40,000 neurons, this gives the heart the ability to
sense independently, process information, make decisions, and even to demonstrate
a type of learning and memory. The heart will beat independently of any nervous or
The spontaneous rhythm of the heart is called intrinsic automaticity and can be altered
by nervous impulses or by circulatory substances, like adrenaline.
Research has shown that the heart is a hormonal gland, manufacturing and secreting
numerous hormones and neurotransmitters that profoundly affect brain and body function.
Among the hormones the heart produces is oxytocin - well known as the “love” or “bonding
hormone.” Science has only begun to understand the effects of the electromagnetic
fields produced by the heart, but there is evidence that the information contained
in the heart’s powerful field may play a vital synchronizing role in the human body.
Research has also shown that the heart is a key component of the emotional system.
Scientists now understand that the heart not only responds to emotion, but that the
signals generated by its rhythmic activity actually play a major part in determining
the quality of our emotional experience from moment to moment. The heart’s extensive
communication network with the brain profoundly impact perception and cognitive function.
For more info on the heart click here