As a human being, stress is a fact of life.
The negative relationship that many people have with stress leads to detrimental effects on your health, ranging from developing short-term issues such as anxiety, insomnia, an inability to focus, and more. The long-term damages can include damaging your heart and blood pressure, inducing anxiety disorders, and harming your ability to feel good and have the energy to enjoy your life.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that your body’s stress response system is a beneficial and necessary network in the body. In fact, stress is inherently good!
Stress can be a means of warning and protection.
But longstanding chronic stress can have a detrimental mental, physical, and relational impact.
Understanding the stress response can help you realize how to manage this natural system better and how you can use HRV (heart rate variability) as a tool to get a deeper understanding of the health of your natural stress response system.
How Stress Affects Your Heart Rate and HRV
Your autonomic nervous system governs the body’s stress response system. Your heart activity directly ties to this system. This process is like your body’s automatic maintenance system that prepares for action or rest and recovery. Various chemicals are released when your body experiences stressors. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good and natural physiological response.
Adrenaline and cortisol are the two chemicals that work to elevate your heart rate and prepare your body for action (i.e. the fight or flight response). In some cases, this is a good thing (escaping from danger, hunting for food, etc.). However, chronic, unrestrained stress can wreak havoc on your blood pressure and heart health in the long term. In particular, it damages your body’s ability to return to rest, focus, produce energy, and stay balanced. As you can probably imagine, this places unhealthy stress on the heart, leads to harmful effects on your physical and mental health, and even raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.
High levels of stress are linked to both elevated levels of glucose in the blood as well as reduced parasympathetic nervous system activity (the body’s system that helps it rest and recover). When this system is thrown off, the heart’s variability becomes much less adaptable – that is, it is less able to return to rest after it becomes stressed.
When you become stressed, the body releases adrenaline, constricts blood vessels, and prepares the body for action. Over the long term, this action can cause the body to lose its ability to activate the parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system, making it much more difficult to calm down and lead a balanced lifestyle.
This is why chronic stress can manifest as an anxiety disorder, triggers feelings of being hungry all the time, ruins sleeping patterns, triggers hypertension, and much more.
The other side of this mechanism is cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”). When under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor. But prolonged elevated cortisol levels can increase blood sugar levels.
High sugar levels in the blood are incredibly damaging to the cardiovascular system. The direct damage it causes is to your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. Over time, this damage often leads to heart disease, specifically coronary artery disease. People with diabetes tend to develop heart disease at a younger age than people without diabetes – and stress is a major contributing factor to this.
Understanding the root cause of stressors and what is activating our stress management systems can lead you to develop lifestyle habits and stress management techniques. These techniques can improve your body’s ability to tolerate stress. A heart rate variability biofeedback wearable can track your stress tolerance abilities and help you get a glimpse of the health of this natural system.
Using Stress to Improve Your HRV
Many people misunderstand the effects that stress has on your health and, as we mentioned, how the stress response system actually works.
While chronic stress is undeniably bad for you, we all understand that utilizing certain forms of stress is a critical aspect of maintaining your health. These include cardio workouts, weight lifting, cold/heat therapy, and more. These activities purposely activate your stress response system and train it over time.
It’s important to understand that stress can work to improve your heart rate variability and your overall health if appropriately managed. The chemicals this natural response releases can work to bolster your immune system, boost your energy levels, and can also tone your ability to tolerate stress. Understanding heart rate variability metrics provided by a biofeedback wearable can help you see how this system is performing.
Remember that HRV serves as a proxy for stress and is only data/information. The goal or the purpose is to increase adaptability to stress. The manifestation, from a data perspective, is increased HRV.
The main fault here is not the stress itself but the perception of stress. If you see stress as an unfortunate invader of your day that only serves to hinder you, then it is likely that you will be stressed more often. This mindset leads to unhealthy levels of chronic stress, depleted energy, and a poor HRV score representing a maladapted stress response system. This type of mindset is common in those who have post-traumatic stress disorder or have an unhealthy relationship with stress in their lives.
It is better to think of your body’s stress response system as a complete system. Understanding this point helps shift your mindset to training your body to tolerate and handle stress more effectively. The name for this system in your body is the autonomic nervous system – so named because it works automatically to either prepare you for action or bring the body back to rest.
Understanding that you can improve the balance between your stress-inducing and rest-inducing systems in the body can give you the ability to take control of the state of your brain and body. You can use these biological processes in your body to help lower stress and cultivate a more balanced, healthy, and fulfilling life.
Improve Your Health, Improve Your HRV
If you want to improve your stress response system by employing the tactics mentioned above, there are a few fundamental approaches you can take:
One of the most tried and true pieces of advice we will always give is regularly engaging in some form of exercise. Cardio, weight lifting, and even a simple walk can go a long way toward training your body’s stress response system and improving your HRV adaptability. It also works wonders for those who suffer from high blood pressure, chronic pain, or mental health issues.
Slow Down Your Nervous System
If you want to combat an overly-stimulated stress system, practice slowing down! One of the most essential things in life is to give others your presence, but this is incredibly hard to do if you don’t train your body to calm your nervous system, slow down, reduce stress levels, and be in the moment. Some of our favorite practices to slow down include meditation, yoga, taking a walk, and spending quality time with close friends and family.
Improve Your Gut Health
Your gut health plays a critical role in nearly every system in your body – including your heart rate variability and autonomic nervous system. It’s important not to think of the heart as an isolated organ unaffected by other aspects of health. Experts often refer to the gut as the “second brain” because it helps produce serotonin, influences your mood and memory, create vitamins, and, importantly, regulates the autonomic nervous system.
The heart and gut are connected to the brain through the vagus nerve. In fact, 80-90% of the fibers in the vagus nerve point up towards the brain. That means your heart and gut have a much more significant impact on your stress response system than you may have realized.
With this in mind, you can improve your gut health by cutting out gut disruptors such as caffeine, gluten, and dairy. Eat a whole, natural, unprocessed, organic diet consisting of plenty of plants and sustainably raised animal products.
Now that you understand how HRV and stress are related, you can practice these biofeedback training tips and watch as your average HRV scores improve alongside your health and well-being.