These are anxious times we’re living in right now. At WHOOP, we talk a lot about how physical exertion impacts our heart rate variability (HRV) and recovery but it is important to note that emotional and psychological stress can also play a significant role in mediating HRV (Chalmers et al., 2014). One thing we can all do to make the most of anxiety and stress is to try to identify the source of the anxiety and turn it into positive energy.
The problem is “the battle” isn’t always obvious. Anxiety can be subtle, appear out of nowhere and accumulate in ways that are difficult to perceive. The more connected we are to the nuanced perturbations of our body the better positioned we will be to interpret and leverage these moments to our advantage.
Last Sunday, I started thinking about the week ahead and the uncertainty around my routines and my family's routines--all of which I could no longer control. Not to mention, the state of the world in general. I could feel my heart rate increase and anxiety creep in. The sympathetic branch of my nervous system was activated sending signals to my body to get ready for battle. But what is the “battle” exactly?
What Triggers Anxiety?
Things are crazy right now for sure, but for me there are no real immediate threats. Framing the moment is powerful. Controlled breathing is a great strategy, but you can also think about the release of adrenaline and cortisol as an “in the moment gift” of ENERGY. Our default is often to label these physiological signals as “bad” or try to mute them with calming interventions, but really these signals might be your body urging you to take action!
Our bodies send us signals every day. How we deal with them to a large degree dictates our mental and emotional well-being. When it comes to anxiety, identifying, interpreting and thoughtfully channeling the signals your body is sending you can help you feel in control and help you deal with feelings of stress in a productive way.
Here are some things we know about how the human nervous system works, as well as ideas on how to interpret and leverage the signals your body is sending to you.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
- The heart has its own nervous system through which the brain and heart communicate and influence each other in a synchronized fashion.
- Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate or pulse. HRV is now understood to be reflective of inner emotional states and an indirect estimator of health and well-being (McCraty et. al., 2014).
- The two branches of the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic and sympathetic) compete to send signals to the heart. In a healthy system, when it's time to take action or there is a perceived threat, the sympathetic will dominate, when there are no threats, parasympathetic dominates.
- When speaking of autonomic balance, it should be kept in mind that a healthy system is constantly and dynamically changing. Therefore, an important indicator of the health status of the regulatory systems is the capacity to respond to and adjust the relative autonomic balance (example: Heart rate) to the appropriate state for the context the person is engaged in at any given moment.
- Knowing your heart rate variability can lead to improved health and well-being (Bornemann, 2019).
Core Psychological Needs Influence Autonomic “Balance”
It is well documented that our three most important psychological needs are:
1) Purpose - alignment between behaviors and core values
2) Control over one's life
3) Efficacy - feeling like you have the skills and resources to do what is asked of you (Ryan and Deci, 2012).
The first core principle is to realize that these are needs to pay attention to daily. The second is to understand that when any of these three needs are challenged or threatened, your ANS will perceive this threat and send signals to your heart to increase blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, and body temperature so you can take action to deal with the threat.
Autonomic Nervous System and Anxiety
It is important to understand that while HRV is an excellent indicator of physical readiness, it is also a powerful estimator of mental well-being (Shaffer et al., 2014). So, while physical activity plays a meaningful role in HRV modulation (the more physically fit you are, the higher the HRV), psychological stress likely plays a more powerful role in mediating HRV. In 2014, a meta analysis demonstrated that anxiety disorders are associated with significant reductions in HRV (Chalmers et al., 2014).
When core psychological needs are unattended to, the “dissonance” and associated biological stress responses (high cortisol leading to sympathetic activation) will manifest in your ANS and will then be reflected in the variation of time between your heart-beats (less variation = depressed HRV, more variation = higher HRV). Higher HRV means you are more responsive to both signals from your ANS, which will enable higher levels of functioning relative to your potential.
Unfortunately, we often interpret or label these sympathetic signals as a negative thing (stress and anxiety), and as a result, our default might be to mute the signal with a short-term unhelpful “sympathetic fix” (recreational drugs, medication, procrastination, food, alcohol, ruminating about the future, etc).
“Stress” = Energy
Instead, we should consider evaluating why we are receiving these signals from our ANS. The potential issue I observe is due to readily available "sympathetic" fixes, the easier and "less stressful" path [in the moment] is to avoid or dull these sympathetic signals. As a result, we might miss the opportunity to use the energy/stress produced by sympathetic activation to take care of whatever is causing the anxiety.
By increasing our awareness and connection to these signals, we become more connected to the “why” associated with this surge of energy and less susceptible to being distracted or overcome by short-term “fixes.” And even more importantly, this gives ourselves an opportunity to channel the stress in productive, helpful ways!
Awareness Enables Appropriate Action
Sympathetic activation serves the purpose of helping us realize the value in work, progress, innovation, creativity - simply getting stuff done - so our lives can be organized and continue to move forwards. Parasympathetic activation is enabled by being present and enjoying the beauty of the moment. Elevated awareness (along with a good night's sleep) positions us to appropriately interpret and capitalize on these states, thereby reducing misplaced anxiety and stress.
So next time you get a surge of stress and feel anxious, consider the source. Be mindful that these energy producing biological responses might be the unconscious part of your body urging you to take action. When I could feel the anxiety build last weekend, I used that as motivation to clean my basement and garage, and set up my patio! Whenever I channel anxious energy into something that feels productive, I never regret it afterwards.
Bornemann, B., Kovacs, P. & Singer, T. Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability through biofeedback is improved by mental contemplative training. Sci Rep 9, 7860 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44201-7
Chalmers JA, Quintana DS, Abbott MJ, Kemp AH. Anxiety Disorders are Associated with Reduced Heart Rate Variability: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2014 ;5:80. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00080. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4092363/
McCraty, R., & Zayas, M. A. (2014). Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability, and psychosocial well-being. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1090. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01090. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4179616/
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. Retrieved December 2009, from https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf
Shaffer, F., McCraty, R., & Zerr, C. L. (2014). A healthy heart is not a metronome: an integrative review of the heart's anatomy and heart rate variability. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1040. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01040. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4179748/