How to Biohack Your Courage Using the Wizard of Oz (and Heart Rate Variability)

heart rate variability
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Lots of us are in the habit of thinking of the body as a simplistic machine that can be separated into separate, independent parts. It’s a useful way of thinking about the body. Your brain does your thinking, your liver is a filter, your heart is a pump, and it works to understand the system of your body at a high level. The problem is that there are much more complex interactions between our hearts, brains, and bodies, and no system in the body is truly independent from the other systems. Figuring out how to work across these systems is the key to owning your courage.

We also tend to think of emotions and intelligence as two separate entities, which is not entirely true. Your emotions are way faster than your intelligence, but that speed comes at a cost – your emotions happen whether or not it’s intelligent or logical that they do, and they happen before you have a chance to think about them. They just show up, but because they happen first, they also influence your cognition.

Some aspiring biohackers make the mistake of focusing on just their brain function, or just on managing stress. The truth is that doing either one has secondary benefits on the other, and separating them out makes them easier to think about, but it’s inaccurate.

Let’s say you’ve upgraded your IQ and intelligence with the techniques here on the blog.  Let’s say you’ve also worked to manage your stress levels by practicing meditation and other relaxation techniques.

But have you connected these things?  You’ve got the heart the tin man wanted, the brain the straw man wanted, but do you have the courage the lion wanted?

If you’re like most people, the answer is no, but it’s not for lack of trying.

How to Hack the Courage of a Lion

To build courage, you face your fears. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic show of events.  If you’re afraid of heights, skydiving right away might be overkill.  The best place to start building courage is with little things.  Walk up to someone on the street and say hello while making eye contact.  Ask for her/his number.

The problem with this gradual process is that most of us don’t understand what fear really is, so we go about teaching ourselves to “not be afraid.” When you do this, your core assumption is that your fear is rational and will listen to your rational thoughts. Fear, being survival and brain-stem based, doesn’t listen to rational thoughts because rational thoughts are too slow.

Think about it. If it was your sole job in life to spot a tiger about to pounce, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time listening to a slow-talking voice yammering about things like logic that aren’t dangerous. That’s why your fear-brain will gladly ignore you as you convince yourself that you’re not afraid of something because your rational brain thinks there’s no reason to be.

So now you’re screwed. You’ve taught yourself that you’re not afraid because there’s no reason you should be, you’ve disconnected your rational brain from your biology-driven fear response, the same one we share with all creatures that have a spinal cord. Your fear response is there for a reason – to keep your body from getting eaten, burned, or starving to death, and it will be there as long as you are alive.

The trick to hacking your courage is to know how to deal with that single fact.

By teaching yourself to ignore your fear when there’s no reason to be afraid, what you achieve is not courage. It’s ignorance. But it’s useful ignorance – it lets you temporarily overpower your fear response using sheer will. Since you learned to ignore the feeling of fear, you won’t even feel it when you’re using sheer will to overcome that feeling and act anyway.

Using sheer will to overcome irrational fear is a biologically expensive act, and all that wasted energy keeps you from being Bulletproof. When you run out of energy to power your sheer will holding the invisible fear at bay, the fear response from your reptile brain will absolutely interfere with your comprehension, with your focus, and with the way you treat other people. In other words, you’ll act like an asshole. Totally not Bulletproof.

In order to conquer your fears and build the courage of a lion, you will face your fear. Not the things that you’re afraid of, but the source of the fear itself: your sympathetic nervous system.

Learning to deal with that part of your nervous system that creates fear used to take years of meditation. Now things are different – we have heart rate variability training.

How Heart Rate Variability Training Gives You the Courage of A Lion

heart rate variabilityWhen most people face one of their irrational fears, they go into an automatic stress response.  Their heart rate quickens, they sweat a little which changes galvanic skin response, they get a lump in their throat as salivary glands shut down, and their heart rate variability (the rhythmic change in the space between each heart beat) decreases. Most people don’t notice any of this at a conscious level; it’s automatic and effortless. And it makes you weak.

Combat veterans know this well and account for it, as elegantly described in On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, a book every aspiring biohacker should read. (That is an affiliate link; if you buy the book, Amazon may pay about 8 cents to support the blog; doesn’t go into my pocket…)

The strongest indicator that your fear-brain is getting in the way of your logical brain is your heart rate variability, or HRV. It turns out that when your brain stem is preparing your body to run away or fight (even without your conscious permission), the first thing it does is to change the rhythm of your heart beat so that your heart beat is very steady. When you’re unstressed, the space between each heart beat naturally varies quite a lot.

HRV training teaches you to control this stress response by using technology to tell you when your heart rate is highly variable, then teaching you to use your consciousness to control your animalistic fear response. There are two main ways this works. The first is by teaching you to recognize when your reptilian-derived brain stem is firing your sympathetic nervous system, priming your body to fight.

This directly gives you courage. Now, you can feel a fear when it happens, so you can acknowledge it and overcome it. It’s far less cowardly than simply pretending the fear doesn’t exist because there is no reason for it to exist. It also allows you to avoid feeling weak or unworthy when your reptile brain does something like make you lose control of your bowels in a fight, which happens to soldiers all the time.

The second way HRV gives you courage is that it teaches you to consciously turn off your sympathetic nervous system response to stress, the one you call fear. That’s amazing. First HRV teaches you how to know your reptilian brain is making you experience fear, then it teaches you how to make it stop. Then you can act with real courage, acknowledging and owning your fear rather than acting with a veneer of courage smeared on top of repressed fear.

How to upgrade your courage in 6 weeks

This list comes from my experience as a performance coach for senior executives, including ones with paralyzing fear of public speaking.

  • image of an emWave2Get an emWave2. If you like this post, please consider buying one from my small store here.
  • Agree that you will practice Heart Math training using the device every day for at least 10 minutes once or twice a day, for 6 weeks straight. 6 weeks matters. Just do it.
  • Spend as much of that time in the “green” zone as possible.  Track your progress with the software that comes with the emWave.  Pay attention to how you feel and what you are thinking about when you are in the Bulletproof state of high coherence (the “green” zone on the emWave2).
  • Do this every day without missing for 6 weeks, which will allow time for your brain plasticity to come into play and teach you a new skill – how to turn off your sympathetic nervous system.

When you are faced with one of your fears, do whatever makes the light on your emWave2 turn green, even if you’re not connected to it at the time.  You’ll notice that you don’t have the same degree of fear, and you don’t feel as drained after facing it.  Once this has occurred, you’ll know that you’ve biohacked your brain, heart, and courage, at least some.

Your brain and heart are closely connected.  Hacking both is important, but to truly upgrade your self, you need to connect them.  The simplest way to do this is with a Heart Math emWave2.

In 2010, I became a certified HeartMath executive coach, and I’m on the advisory board for the company that makes it because I believe this is one of the most important technologies available for all biohackers.  It hacks the entire world of Oz – your heart, brain, and courage.  It allows you to face your fears, and manage the stress that stops most people from doing so.  It makes you more psychologically resilient, and that’s totally Bulletproof.

Have you used the emWave2? I’d love to see some comments here….

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By Dave Asprey

  • Michael

    Sold 🙂 Would love to see more of your thoughts and suggestions on this kind of subject. I speak up for what Ive seen you suggest in this field thus far. Those real time progressions that can actually be understood whether in a state of panic or not, its a good helping hand over feeling like you are helpless and alone. Thanks Dave

  • James

    You recommended this to me about a year ago.
    I did not follow through with your advice for many reason (none of them good reasons).
    However now I have been doing this on and off for a few weeks and it has made a big difference in the way I deal with things and how I feel.

    I am going to start doing this like you suggest everyday for the next six weeks. Thank you for everything you are doing.

  • Jay

    Sorry but, is the desktop version ALSO portable? And to be carried around? Im not sure if the more expensive product is the same thing, but with extras.

    • JasonHooper

      The desktop version does not come with the emWave2 module.

      The next natural step in the HeartMath development of emWave is to port their software to Android. With ICS and above, USB OTG will make it a seamless integration. Zio figured it out quickly with their Bluetooth edition, but Zio developed their mobile platform before Android 4.0. Bluetooth is no longer necessary.

  • Victor Dorfman

    Man, I’ve got to

    • Victor, it’s interesting you mention that. I started practicing Vipassana meditation three years ago, and I’ve come to a realization similar to what you mentioned. Rather than running from moments of vivid pain or fear, spending time deeply aware of the feelings and sensations they bring about does wonders for overcoming them.
      Having an emwave also helps – I’ve been using it before my meditation every morning and it helps me jump start my session.

  • Jeremy

    This may be the best investment I have ever made in myself.

    Being an entrepreneur and dealing with minor setbacks, when I am able to handle this stress it is invaluable. It definitely keeps me going!

    Thanks Dave

  • John D

    Even with things like going up to random people and introducing myself, my brain seems to come up with every excuse not to in the moment — social anxiety kind of sucks. Is this something that will help with that? Would it help with general confidence overall? Lastly, is there any real benefit to doing meditation over this, or this over meditation?

    • John D

      And one more, does using an emwave have the same effects on reactivity?

      • Aron L.

        I think these are some pretty good questions. I too would like to know the answers to these.

    • Kenneth Bundy

      I have done a lot of meditation before finding this site (almost 10 years), and that does help. It took 9 years though and didn’t completely ‘solve’ the problem. I spent all that time correcting the wrong perceptions (to borrow the Buddhist phrase) associated with my social anxiety, and that helped.

      I ‘fixed’ the problem after starting the Bulletproof diet and supplementing vitamin D and magnesium; even now if I skip either one for more than two days it comes back. Two days into the supplements my social anxiety just sort of disappeared. It was like the greatest thing ever.

      I haven’t tried the emWave yet, but if it works in 6 weeks that would be a faster bet. I imagine doing both would be the best option.

      Another thing you can do is when you go to the store and there is a cute girl (or dude…I’m telling you what I did) checking you out (in either sense of the word) ask her how her day was. You already have a conversation started, and you need to practice talking to strangers. This is a pretty good baby step in my opinion. They may think you are hitting on them, but that is OK since I preface this with them being cute. Now you get to actually hit on them. From there you can up the ante, and you get really good at small talk, which is useful for the later steps of talking to strangers.

  • Jesse

    Had just ordered mine and it showed up yesterday. Any specific protocol to start? Also, I seem to be in low coherence whenever I start a measurement. Is this an accurate reading or am I not warming it up enough first?

    • Dave Asprey

      It takes a minute to get measurements; you’ll always start at red and go from there.
      Sent from my nobile phone. You understand….

      • Alan Faulkner

        Hmmm, mine always starts @ 100% green on the Desktop ver. BTW I have a bit of buyer’s remorse, as I should have gotten the mobile ver.

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  • Chris

    When is this thing going to be an iPhone app/add-on? Having to use a Windows pc is old school… 🙂

  • Have you properly looked into this product before reviewing?

    http://medgadget.com/2006/06/pseudoscience_fights_back.html

    • Dave Asprey

      Lol yes.

      • Florent Berthet

        I think Goran expected a little bit more science in your answer. I know I do. That said, I REALLY want to believe the coherence stuff. Any study to link?

  • Have been using it for 4 days in a row now and I’m getting better. Look forward to seeing the results going forward.

  • Liz

    I’ve experienced this recently when I started having panic attacks; if someone here ever had one, you know how it goes…

    I’ve come to realize that if I try to “cool off” and let myself feel the things I feel and go through 1) the “impending fear of death” with all that goes along with it starts to decrease and I get to overcome it more easily 2) I get the feeling that I do have some control over it and the confidence that it will go away AND, very importantly, I no longer live in fear of the possible future attacks because it’s fine, really. This, in turn, lessens the probability of me getting future panic attacks because I’m no longer in a state of stress, worrying about the moment of the next one.

    If, at first, I would fear it, try to avoid/fight it and only make it worse and get myself to the ER, I have found that facing it, living it, feeling it and “letting it sink in”, trying to get in a sort of meditation is making it a lot better. Another thing is that… you never feel so much alive as when you know you are about to die (even if you won’t) so I figured, I might as well experience it and see how it feels. 😛

    Of course, this is a complex situation and, also, I’ve only “tested” it for a little while and can’t conclude on it but it does seem to make things better. 🙂

    Cheers!

  • Alex

    Why does my heart rate variability continue to randomly change when I remove the ear piece?

    Why does the pulse on the emwave continue to pulsate when my finger is not touching it but hovering above?

    Why does the emwave pulsate when i put a piece of paper over where the finger goes and not even touch it?

    Give me any reason not to return this and restore your credibility.

    • Josh Shaffer

      None of these things happen with my EmWave2. If I take my finger off the sensor or unplug the earpiece the device stops. If I maintain the breathing pattern and purposely think about stressful events my coherence drops into the red zone. If I maintain the breathing pattern, focus on my heart, and think happy thoughts my coherence rises into the green zone. The EmWave2 works as advertised.

  • mbraining

    Hey Dave, great and important post, however, there’s something you need to add into the mix… Fear is a core competency of the gut brain. That’s right. Neuroscience has shown that we have a functional and complex neural network or ‘brain’ in the gut, called the enteric brain, and fear is mediated by this brain. So yes, using HRV to bring the Autonomic Nervous System into coherence or balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic is a key component of courage ie. of overcoming fear. But you need more than this. Just HRV control is NOT sufficient. In fact, we modeled elite defense force fighters and Navy SEALS and found that there are simple and powerful ways in which they align their head, heart and gut brains to produce incredible courage and push through fear. Our work is described in our recently published book ‘mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff’, and you can find out more about this at http://www.mbraining.com

    If you want to learn to hack not just your head and heart brains, but also your gut brain and how to tap into and utilize the innate wisdom and intelligence of all your brains (head, heart and gut), then please check out our work and models.

    thanks, Grant and Marvin

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  • Armin

    Could training with the emwave2 theoretically allow to pass a lie detector test? 🙂

    • Time Man

      No but tightening your sphincter during the first calibration questions will. It raises blood pressure so the following readouts will show as ‘truthfully answered’. (If Cory Dowctorow is correct in his awesome novel ‘Little Brother’)

  • Victor

    I have been using the Omegawave system as well as this one and the Omegawave, nukes the emwave one. Even the one from http://www.8weeksout.com provides much better and accurate feedback than the emwave. If anyone is testing and comparing.

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  • wayne unger

    After taking the training from Heartmath in 2000, I have taught the coherence technique to many security professionals.(police etc) If officers have time they can biohack there fear response on the way to a “hot” call. When they arrive they will make better threat assessments and has result will be safer. To me it is a no brainer.
    The other application is after a spontaneous event, coherence techniques will help them decompress from their fear response.

    • Jeremy

      Wow. That is simply amazing. I must learn more!

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  • Erzhena Soktoeva

    I have polar heart rate monitor. Can I experiment with that?

  • Adrian

    Already got a EmWave2. Highly recommended if you are going to USE IT!
    I use it. Daily. My 2 year old daughter sits on my lap while we play some of the games.
    In 2006 & 2008 I had military deployments. After I went into mini retirement. Came back to society as a professional Coach. I now use the HeartMaths, NLP, PSYCH-K, mBraining, Mindfulness Technologies to help my clients perform to their best. HRV is Phenomenal technology which I highly recommend.

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  • NECKBONE

    I have the innerbalance device and have used it for a couple of weeks. I can get decent HRV results while deep breathing and thinking positive thoughts, but does anyone have any luck dealing with stressful situations while using the innerbalance or emwave2 and obtaining good numbers? In reading the article, it seems like the real trick is being able to use the training to switch off the stress response when dealing with everyday stressful situations.

    • IMBACK

      yes.. I’ve done it.

      I have started using inner balance out in public.. in the real world.. with noise, stress, TV on… to help me get in the zone in real world situations.

      try it.

  • Time Man

    I have an Emwave 1 (the model before the #2 mentioned above), and it’s a
    great device. One problem: Because my circulation isn’t optimal, it
    doesn’t register the blood pumping. The ear clip also did not work well,
    possibly only when the battery was fully charged.

    Does the Emwave 2 have better sensors? Or which chest-worn sensor device would you recommend? Any hints are welcome!

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