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Heart Rate Variability Training for Fear, Anxiety, and Focus

Heart Rate Variability Training for Fear, Anxiety, and Focus

  • Your heart doesn’t beat with perfect rhythm; there are little variations in the time between heartbeats, and how much your heartbeat varies is a good indicator of your mental and emotional state.
  • Heart rate variability (HRV) training teaches you to consciously control those variations in your heartbeat, as well as the emotional state and fight-or-flight response that are tied to HRV.
  • HRV training can help you manage fear, decrease anxiety, and improve your mental focus for sustained periods of time, all with 15-30 minutes of training a day. Read below to learn how to do HRV training.

Did you know that your heart doesn’t have a steady beat?

The classic, rhythmically repeating thump-thump most of us think of as a heartbeat is actually inaccurate. Your heart doesn’t beat with perfect rhythm — there are minor changes from beat to beat. The difference in time between heart beats is called your heart rate variability (HRV).

“[Our heart] is being affected by our nervous system, and that neural influence provides beat-to-beat changes in rate,” says psychiatric researcher Stephen Porges in a recent Bulletproof Radio podcast episode [iTunes].

Changes in your HRV are a good predictor of your emotional and psychological states. Your HRV decreases in response to stress[1] and sadness[2], for example, and it increases when you’re happy[3].

With a little effort, you can learn to consciously control your heart rate variability, which can influence how you feel day-to-day and how you respond to stressors or negative emotions.

HRV training is a quick and inexpensive way to get more control of your emotions and increase your ability to handle scary or stressful situations. This article will cover three major benefits of heart rate variability training, as well as the tools you can use to enhance your HRV and improve your stress response, focus, and more.

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Benefits of heart rate variability training

1. HRV training controls fear

Your fight-or-flight response is your body’s solution to danger. When you pick up on a threat in your environment, your body goes on high alert — your heart starts beating faster, you pump out cortisol and adrenaline, your rational thinking declines, and your muscles tense up. You get ready to either fight the threat or flee from it.

The fight-or-flight response is what kept humans alive in the wild. It’s a useful instinct for dealing with immediate physical threats. The trouble is that your brain doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing between a real threat (say, a bear walking toward your campground) and an imagined one (messing up your words during a speech to a large group of people). Your fight-or-flight response fires up either way, and in the latter situation, it can do more harm than good.

Fortunately, you can learn to consciously control your fight-or-flight response. Heart rate variability training teaches you to control fear, and the cortisol spike and adrenaline rush that comes with it.

Your HRV decreases in response to acutely stressful situations, and the decrease seems to affect your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls reasoning and clear thinking[4].

With HRV training, you can learn to consciously raise your HRV, which either prevents the dip that happens during stress or helps you recover from it much faster. In other words, you can learn to hack your fear and keep yourself balanced, even in the face of looming disaster[5]. HRV training can help you stay calm so you perform at your best, even under pressure.

2. HRV training relieves anxiety

Heart rate variability training helps if you’re anxious, too. Anxiety is similar to fight-or-flight, but with anxiety you usually don’t take any effective action — you just sit with a feeling of dread that can grow into panic. Not surprisingly, anxiety correlates with decreased HRV[6].

HRV training is one of the best things you can do to relieve anxiety long-term. Students preparing for a week of stressful university exams showed a marked drop in anxiety levels after five weeks of daily HRV training — and their low anxiety lasted for a full 12 weeks, even when they stopped training their HRV[7].

In another study, young, moderate-to-severely anxious people saw a significant decrease in anxiety after just eight sessions of HRV training[8].  

HRV training can help you get control of anxiety, and its benefits seem to last long-term.

Related: Natural Anxiety Relief: 7 Ways to Treat Anxiety Without Medication

3. HRV training improves attention

You can also use heart rate variability training to upgrade your focus.

Research shows that HRV and attention are closely linked — HRV is higher during sustained periods of focus, and it drops as focus decreases[9][10].

HRV training can improve your ability to focus, particularly when it comes to tasks that require sustained attention over time[11][12][13].

Heart rate variability training can make you calmer under pressure, less anxious, more resilient to stress, and more focused.

Related: How to Rewire Your Brain for Focus and Calm

How to do heart rate variability training

HRV training is simple. You use a device that measures the variation in time between your heartbeats and assigns you a score in real time — either green, yellow, or red. Green is associated with high HRV, and a state of calm focus that you want to maintain.

As you get real-time feedback on your HRV, you learn how to consciously change it. You do so by trying different things, like thinking positive thoughts, thinking negative thoughts, changing your breathing, and so on to see how your behavior affects your HRV.

With this kind of immediate feedback, you can learn very quickly what works for raising your HRV. After a couple weeks of training, getting into high HRV will become second nature. You’ll know what habits increase your HRV and you’ll be able to raise your HRV at will.

This conscious control gives you the ability to manage stress proactively and get yourself out of a fight-or-flight state.

The best HRV training tool is the Inner Balance Trainer by HeartMath. It hooks up to your phone and gives you immediate feedback in an app, so you can see your progress in real time.

Do heart rate variability training for 15-30 minutes a day. It’s a high-impact biohack that can make you a calmer, happier, more resilient person.

Read next: How to Hack Your Heart Rate Variability

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