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Willpower is Not a Helpful Concept

Have you ever wished you had more willpower to resist temptations that derail your health goals? Do you start strong with a new way of eating or moving your body and slowly lose your will to continue?

@brioplace

One thing that might help with the idea of willpower (which is not helpful to focus on in regards to health goals) is understanding HRV.

What is HRV?

Heart rate variability, or HRV, refers to the intervals of time (measured in milliseconds) between your heartbeats. Your heart does not beat in perfect rhythm like a drum as we’ve all been led to believe. Instead, there is variability in the timing between beats.

And, as it turns out, high variability in your heartbeats will increase your ability, or likelihood, to resist temptations and stick to your plan. This is because your autonomic nervous system creates a sort of push and pull to keep you balanced.

What is the autonomic nervous system?

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make up the autonomic nervous (ANS). The ANS is a communication route between the heart and brain (and other parts of the body) that creates most of our bodily functions like breathing, salivating, digesting, sweating, detoxing, etc.

The sympathetic nervous system is what kicks in when we are stressed or in danger. This is the system that produces the fight or flight behaviors. When we are stressed, we sometimes sweat, our heartbeat goes up and the intervals between our heartbeats go down. This means lower HRV.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and digest system. It is activated when we are relaxed which helps us make saliva and promotes peristalsis or the contraction of muscles around your digestive system as an example.

The sympathetic system creates a faster heartbeat while the parasympathetic system slows it down. Life gives us too many instances for activating our sympathetic nervous system which requires us to be a little more proactive or reactive in the parasympathetic process.

Knowing your HRV can be a window into assessing and improving this balance.

Imagine you are having a really hard day at work and you can feel your blood pressure (or some other evidence of anxiety, like rapid heart rate or sweating) start to rise. It’s your ANS that is creating these physical changes without thought or permission from you.

Now, how likely are you to say “no thanks” to surprise cookies under these conditions when you have resolved to abstain from sweets for a while?

This is where increased HRV can help.

There are many ways to increase your HRV and in this issue, I’ll propose a couple of things you can do that will be so much more useful in achieving your health goals (or anything you set out to do) than “willing” yourself miserable.

HRV is a fun health marker to track because you can see the changes in real-time. It’s amazing to see how you can control your own heart. Improving your HRV will help you become physically and emotionally resilient.

What devices track HRV?

There are other ways but here are two that I have personally used to track HRV.

  1. Oura Ring is one of the most favorite things I own for more reasons than tracking HRV. This ring is mainly a sleep tracker with an app that has improved greatly over the 4 years that I’ve been using it. In addition to many sleep metrics, it also tracks meditation moments and activity as well.
  2. The HeartMath Inner Balance monitor is what I used before I bought the Oura Ring. This device attaches to your ear and also uses an app to measure your heart during meditation/deep breathing. The word they use as a goal is coherence and I offer this as your alternative to willpower. Coherence as explained by the HeartMath website:

“The HeartMath Institute’s research has shown that generating sustained positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state. This state is termed psychophysiological coherence because it is characterized by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily) processes. Psychophysiological coherence is a state of optimal function. Research shows that when we activate this state, our physiological systems function more efficiently, we experience greater emotional stability, and we also have increased mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.”

There are apps for the Apple Watch or Garmin but they are not as accurate which, from my own current research, is why they are not built into the watch itself. If you know of something different here, please do share that with me at bridget@brioplace.com.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an HRV monitor because you can simply pay attention to your daily coherence level after doing the breathing exercises that follow. I have found it useful to ask myself on a scale of 1 to 10 how I feel before and after any event including meditation, so you can use this method if you can’t track your HRV.

Just breathe.

There are many ways to improve your HRV, like (surprise, surprise) eliminating alcohol, getting good sleep, proper diet, etc. However, one thing that gets talked about as being good for you and too often without a physiological explanation, is meditation.

There has been a lot of research on how our bodies respond to meditation which has led to the devices that let us try to replicate the experiments on ourselves. The strength of the claim in any research outcome is in how many times the experiment can be replicated successfully. This has been done many times showing the benefits of meditation and you can easily try it for yourself, even if you don’t have a device that tracks HRV.

The following are a few breathing exercises that I have tested on my own HRV that you can do in a quiet place or even when you are stuck in traffic or during a meeting where all the information presented will be emailed to you in a slide deck later. 😏

Box breathing – Like equal sides of a square, this technique has equal timing. Breath in through your nose for 4, hold your breath for 4, breathe out through your mouth for 4, and hold for 4. Repeat as often as you want. Also, if 4 seconds is too long or short, adjust to what feels better to you.

Counted breathing – Every time you breathe in you count 1, breath out. Then breath in 2, breathe out. Breathe in 3, etc., and keep going to 21. You can take deep breaths in and out or you can breathe naturally. If you lose count because your mind wanders, don’t fret about it. You can start over, or if that gives you anxiety, just pick a number to continue. It literally does not matter if you finish or even begin again after you get to 21. The point is to practice bringing your attention back to your breath.

4-7-8 breathing – Long exhales tell our body that we are really safe. With this technique, you breathe in through your nose for a 4 count, hold your breath for a 7 count, and exhale through your mouth for an 8 count. This one is great for traffic.

In all of these practices, the thing to remember is that your mind will wander and there is zero need to worry about this fact. Again, the aim is to practice bringing your attention back to your breath (where you feel it in your body) and your count. When I have tracked this on my Oura ring, I can see that when my mind wanders, my heart rate changes. It’s pretty amazing.

The other amazing thing about practicing this change of focus from your uncontrolled mind wandering to controlled focus on breath is that when you are living your everyday life moments, you develop an ability to change your focus from unhelpful things to more helpful things, thus acting on better decisions in the process.

And that, my friend, is what the game of coherence is all about!

For example, instead of thinking,

“Darnit, I have to deprive myself of that sweet treat when everyone else is so happy right now, I might as well have one,”

it’s easier to think,

“I’m not missing anything because I’m grateful that Bridget taught me something useful (or insert your own gratitude here.) And my future self will be happy about this decision to abstain as well!”

@brioplace

A couple of other things to understand about HRV is that there is a wide range of intervals (from 10 to over 100, so it’s completely personal) and that it generally decreases with age. While they don’t recommend you share your Oura Ring with anyone so as not to skew your tracking, I did let my daughter wear it to bed once when she was around 20 years old. I could not believe how much higher her HRV was than my normal. I average in the 20s to low 30s and hers was in the 80s that night!

If you think about it, if you are able to increase your HRV, you are aging backward! At the very least, you are buying yourself some time or perhaps a better quality of life.

And that is what Brio Place is about, increasing that vivacity!

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