Heart rate variability is the variation in the time interval between heart beats. The more variation there is, the calmer a person will be able to remain regardless of what internal or external stimuli is presented. To truly immerse yourself on what heart rate variability is and how it can benefit you, review this and then this. I decided to use a Wahoo Bluetooth chest strap linked to the Sweetbeat HRV app to measure my HRV while practicing a standard routine of Vipassana mindfulness meditation for ten minutes per day. HRV provided me with quantifiable feedback to gauge if I was waking up to ready to workout or in need of more recovery time. The only feedback I had been getting outside of HRV was experiential feedback from my thought logging and journaling, which continues to be rewarding, but it never hurts to throw some numbers into the analysis.
Part of my WellnessFX blood test measured my cortisol levels. Cortisol levels and HRV have been linked as strong indicators of stress. As I continued to go deeper and deeper with my practice of mindfulness meditation, I began feeling more and more comfortable “sitting” with some of the most undesirable and stressful thoughts my mind had and still has to offer. I’ve been able to externalize those thoughts and allow them to be just that, thoughts, not reality. Prior to this ability to externalize, if these certain thoughts crossed my mind, it would be difficult to separate from them, causing elevated levels of stress and increased fluctuations in my HRV. In other words, it would cause a great deal of stress. If you read the articles above regarding what HRV actual is, great. If not, I suggest you do because the following brief explanation may not make much sense if you don't have a strong understanding of HRV. There were two factors about HRV that proved to be beneficial learning about; root mean square of the successive differences (RMSSD) and low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF) LF/HF. Check out this Sweetwater Health presentation to learn about the two (and more if you're craving it).
Below are some cherry-picked results of my ten-minute mindfulness practices before sleep highlighting a few high points, some low points and what my day was like, briefly, before the meditation session which may have affected my levels.
Blue = HRV
Green = Heart Rate
Orange = Stress
10/10/2015 (first reading since blood test) (09:22 AM)
While I was content with having an HRV in the 80s, it was clear that within a matter of a few seconds, I was experiencing +/- 10 beats. When I referred to my thought log during this waking session, no self-defeating or negative thoughts were noted during the beginning of the session. All I noted was difficulty getting comfortable. RMSSD readings were above 100. LF/HF .87.
10/23/2015 - 09:45 PM
I took home a great deal of emotional baggage on the night of 10/22/2015 which lingered into Friday, 10/23/2015, and then really caught up with me during a mindfulness session that night. The mindfulness meditation was difficult to get into, clearly stated in my thought log, and it is evident from HRV reading of 75 for the first minute of mindfulness that I was struggling. By minute three, I was done with my body scan (the second part of my routine) and I was able to raise my HRV levels to 85. My RMSSD was under in the 80s and LF/HF was .93. The steady decline of HRV towards the end of the meditation was also noted in my log as I struggled to "accept" the emotional baggage that occurred that past week and let the thought pass.
11/01/2015 (pre-marathon waking session) (03:34 AM)
RMSSD readings from these 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation boosted my confidence even though I experienced heart rate spikes (green line) which I attributed to self-defeating thoughts of "why am I doing this?" and "what if I can't finish?", to name a few. RMSSD average of 105 seems to indicate a strong vagal tone as per SweetWaterHealth (SWH) and my Low Frequency/High Frequency (LF/HF) was at .78 which is well below the <2 marker of stress as per SWH.
11/18/2015 - great numbers - 8:44 PM
RMSSD of 110. LF/HF of .76. HRV was averaging 89 for the entire session. No self-defeating or negative thoughts were logged from this session.
What have I noticed overall?
I shared 4 sessions above. I've recorded about one and a half months worth to date. While it's incredibly bland and boring stuff to sift through, overall, HRV levels went up. This means, to me, that while I’m practicing mindfulness meditation, I’m teaching myself what it means to keep a high HRV when undesirable thoughts come and go, meaning that my actual heart rate won’t fluctuate rapidly when I am presented with certain thoughts or experiences. I actually notice that I’m generally more patient with people when they’re speaking to me, genuinely allowing them to completely finish their statements before I begin to form a response or opinion. In addition, when someone else’s bad news is presented to me, I don’t allow myself to be part of that cycle unless I am empathizing. I feel myself calmly externalize the “bad news”, empathize with the person and only offer my opinion or advice is requested. (My cortisol levels will come back mid-January). I don’t intend to be tracking my HRV and cortisol numbers during all my life experiences but taking a few months to monitor my stress levels may allow me to gain a new and beneficial perspective on stress. If thats the case, I will gladly continue this opportunity as a means of self-growth.