What Is Heart Rate Variability?Frank Partnoy, law professor at University of San Diego School of Law and author of a book related to HRV titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, explained the phenomenon of brain stem control of the heart for The Diane Rehm Show in this way:
One of the most surprising things I found in my research was that our decision-making doesn't just happen in our brain, but it happens in our brain's stem and in something called the vagal nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that kind of comes down from our brain stem and winds around the various organs in our body, most importantly our heart, and it varies our heart rates.1
Why Are Heart Rate and HRV Important?Scientists in the mental health field continually correlate our ability to change the heart rate appropriately in given scenarios with lower stress and less anxiety and a host of potential benefits such as control of asthma, reduced incidence of autism, and assistance in a wide-range of mental afflictions caused by trauma. As Partnoy explained in regards to HRV: "This is all very preliminary and scientists are struggling to figure it out, but some people believe that a whole host of mental problems that we have emerge from these millisecond-long variations in our hearts."1
How Do Meditation and Heart Rate Relate?Advanced meditators have demonstrated their ability to tune into and, in some cases, control their heart rate with simple awareness. "Simple," of course, is a relative term, as this skill is practiced and refined over decades of meditation. There is something you can do every day, though, to start honing your ability to control your own heart rate and HRV: pay attention to your heart beat.
3-Minute Meditation for Body Awareness and Control
- Sit comfortably.
- Locate your pulse, either on your neck or your wrist, making sure find a pulse strong enough to hold your attention.
- Set a timer for three minutes.
- Sit and count your pulse. Count every single beat to the best of your ability for the full three minutes.
- Write down your results.
This meditation has a few benefits. First, for those of us with attention-span challenges, it presents a focal point that is constantly drawing us back in. The heart beats anywhere from sixty to 100 times per minute in the average healthy person. As you continue to tune in, you may find yourself slowing your heart rate down through breath control and mindful awareness. You may also notice your heart rate spike at certain times of day or on days when your stress level is high. As you keep track, you will notice your personal response pattern to external stimuli.
In a very keyed-in state, you may feel how your heart rate varies beat by beat - this is your HRV or heart rate variability. You may practice calling to mind various mental images and watching how your heart rate responds. This is where we find true benefit. The more your heart is able to respond appropriately to the information you feed your brain, the better the potential effects in overcoming stress and trauma-related reactions in your mind and body.