You already know that a healthy diet and physical activity are important for reducing stress.
You also try to cut out as much stress as possible from toxic relationships and poor habits.
So, why do you still feel so, "off balance?"
If only there were a way to track exactly what's causing stress in your life – beyond the blatantly obvious stuff.
Well, there is: it's called heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB).
By monitoring the varying length of time between each heartbeat, you can identify your personal stress triggers and hack your life.
Let me explain.
Healthy Eating and Exercising Aren't Enough: It's Important to Understand Your Body's Stress Signals
Yes, diet and exercise are extremely important for both physical and mental health – stay with me here.
Eating brain-healthy foods doesn't just improve your memory: it can also help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms because certain vitamins and minerals support healthy blood flow to the brain.
Let's take vitamin b12 for example.
If you stick to a vegetarian or low-meat diet, you might not have ideal levels of vitamin b12. This vitamin is essential for supporting red blood cell production. Long-term low levels of vitamin b12 can trigger deep depression symptoms and memory loss.
In fact, vitamin deficiencies often manifest as mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression including:
It's nearly impossible to get all the vitamins and minerals we need through diet alone – sometimes we're bound to come up short.
This argument isn't to knock anyone on a vegetarian diet, but rather to point out that we need to pay special attention to our bodies' stress signals.
Red Flags Can Creep Up Slowly – or Quickly
Unfortunately, we don't have little guardian angels looking over our shoulder and offering objective advice about our daily habits.
It's hard to identify unhealthy behaviors until we're forced to turn around and analyze our daily life. This usually doesn't happen until we hit a roadblock or crisis.
At least, that's how it works for me.
I was doing everything "right" like eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly – or so I thought.
Then one day, I experienced a series of debilitating panic attacks. They seemed to come out of nowhere (as they often do for many folks).
That's when I was forced to reevaluate my behavior and life prior to this painful event.
My first step: identify what caused my panic attacks and put effort into changing these factors to avoid more attacks down the road.
How did I get there? What did I do wrong?
Stress from work and family relationships
Negative thinking and worrying
Not properly communicating with my support system
Possible lack of nutrients (although I was eating healthy meals)
After that, I realized I need to pay much closer attention to my body's stress signals, too.
What is Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback?
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the length of time between each heartbeat – which varies throughout the day depending on your environmental conditions.
Measuring time between heartbeats is extremely important for identifying heart conditions like myocardial infractions, but HRV is also gaining traction throughout psychophysiology, too.
When you go through emotional arousal and stress, your heart rate (HR) increases while the length of time between each beat decreases. By monitoring this pattern, your heart can provide you with valuable biofeedback about your stress levels and habits.
Athletes swear by heart rate variability biofeedback for improving physical performance. They understand that each person is unique and responds to physical activity differently.
By monitoring their heart rate variability, they can tailor their workouts for optimal results.
How Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Relates to Stress
When you're relaxed or calm, your HRV increases (because your heart beats slower).
As you're exposed to different stressors and emotional arousal, your HRV decreases (because your heart beats faster).
When people think of "emotional arousal" they might only imagine extreme highs or lows like getting into a heated argument, doing something embarrassing, or winning the lottery.
The truth is, we're exposed to different levels of stress every day. We might bottle it up and ignore it, but our heart rate doesn't lie.
Here are just a few examples of stressful factors that could decrease your heart rate variability throughout the day:
Driving in rush-hour traffic
Biting your tongue to avoid an argument or uncomfortable situation
Worrying about bills
Having a full schedule
Functioning on autopilot
An overflowing email inbox
Stress is inevitable. Sure, you can reduce stress in certain areas of your life, but you can never get rid of it completely – even exercise or planning a vacation involve stress.
You can, however, control how you deal with stress and monitor your own body's signals.
Monitoring and Understanding Your Body's Biofeedback
If I started monitoring my heart rate variability biofeedback sooner, I could have identified my stressors and changed my behavior before the panic attacks hit me.
It's okay, you can learn from my mistakes.
HRVB gives you some level of control over your stress. You can only change your environment so much, but you can adapt how you deal with a stressful environment.
Humans are vastly different: we all react and interpret stressful situations differently.
With HRVB, you can understand which situations are causing the most stress. Without paying special attention to your HRV, you might not even realize that certain situations trigger stress.
Once you have that information (the biofeedback part) you can make changes to improve your stress response and other areas of your wellbeing such as:
Using Body Hacks to Reduce Stress
Life seems to just get "easier" once you learn how to handle stress properly.
Sure, pressure from work doesn't go anywhere and your money problems don't vanish, but it's easier to tackle these problems with a clear mind.
Life is hard when you're constantly in fight-or-flight mode and don't even realize it.
I like to use body hacks for improving my stress response and overall wellbeing. No one's perfect and stuff happens, but if I continuously work at it, I can keep my stress levels down and ward off the dreaded panic attacks.
These options below are just a few of my favorite methods.
Meditation and Deep Breathing Exercises
Meditation and deep breathing exercises are really the ultimate body hacks.
When we're stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and less oxygen enters our bloodstream. This decreases blood flow to the brain and negatively impacts our cognitive ability.
Meditation can help "train" the brain to be more resilient when faced with stressful situations. Instead of flying straight into fight-or-flight mode, your brain slowly works through the problem because it stays focused on the solution.
Listening to my Body as I Plan Daily Activities
Every person's HR and HRV is different – nothing is inherently "normal" or "abnormal." Instead, you should track your HRV to understand what's normal or abnormal for you.
I like to track my HRV so I can use it to plan my activities.
When are my peak stress levels? When am I most relaxed?
From there, I can use this information to my advantage by planning a meditation session during my peak stress hours or making important decisions when I'm most relaxed and clear-headed.
Welltory for Monitoring Your Heart Rate Variability
If you've been reading this article and thinking "I wonder if there's an app for that," there is and it's called Welltory.
Dubbed the Google Analytics for humans by TechCrunch, this revolutionary app allows you to track your HRV throughout the day so you can monitor stress levels.
How stressful was your morning commute? Is your meditation routine helping to reduce stress?
Welltory gives you an answer.
The app lets you input all kinds of data ranging from diet and exercise to meditation and work. It also produces charts so you can track the data over time and see how your activities impact stress, energy, and health.
Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback: A Revolutionary Technique to Hack Your Life
It's hard to tell how deeply stress impacts us because we can't look at our lives objectively.
We often become so consumed with stimulating thoughts and worries that we don't even realize how far we've strayed off balance.
How does this impact our life and ability to succeed? Could monitoring and reducing our stress improve our careers, relationships, and overall wellbeing?
I would say so.
Heart rate variability biofeedback gives you the opportunity to do just that: fine tune your habits, steer clear of stress, and hack your life.
Have you heard of HRV before? Is it something you will start to measure?