Measure your HRV and reduce your stress

Stress has become the great health villain of our time and is often associated with reduced well-being and long-term sick leave. Among other things, the number of people taking sick leave due to stress-related ill-health has increased sixfold since 2010. Stress-related ill-health often has a slow course, and therefore it is important to detect the stress as early as possible in order to be able to prevent it and turn the situation around to a more healthy one. There are different ways to measure stress. The method that has proven most reliable is HRV – heart rate variability. Here’s how to measure your HRV to reduce your stress and increase your well-being.

Why stress is so difficult to measure and detect

How we react to stress differs greatly from person to person. A situation that one individual can handle without a problem, may lead to stress for another. It is common for someone who has a lot of stress in their life not to think about it, but instead push themselves harder to cope, which makes it difficult to detect stress via self-assessments such as questionnaires. It is possible to measure stress via physical tests, such as measuring the stress hormone cortisol. However, cortisol measurements are complicated to perform. HRV can then come in as a good measurement method because it is easy to read and is based on the individual conditions.

HRV provides a lot of information about your stress levels and about your health

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a health marker that gives a good indication if there is any imbalance in your health, such as stress, sleep problems or diseases. If you have a lot of stress in your life, it will show in your HRV. Heart rate variability is a measure of how the time interval between your heartbeats varies. When you are in recovery the variability is high, when you are stressed the variability is low. This makes HRV a good marker that can help you see how different situations in your life can affect your health.

The connection between HRV and stress occurs via the body’s autonomic nervous system. It controls bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and other functions that we do not control with our will. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system, which acts as the body’s gas pedal, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as a brake. When you are faced with what you perceive as a stressful situation (too much to do at work, the car refuses to start when you are in a hurry, etc.) the sympathetic nervous system is activated and reprioritizes the body’s functions so that you have more energy to deal with the situation. This is usually called the fight and flight response. After the stressful situation is resolved, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and tells your body to unwind and prioritize recovery, so you can replenish new resources. When these two nervous systems are in balance, you quickly gain more power to deal with difficult situations, and the opportunity to go into hibernation afterwards. What is a problem in today’s world is that what we experience as stressful situations (job and relationship problems, etc.) can last for a long time, sometimes uninterrupted. An imbalance then occurs where the body runs at high speed without being able to recover.

This imbalance manifests itself, among other things, in the heart rate. The variations in your heart rate are affected by how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems take turns signaling your body to work hard or rest. A high variation is positive and shows that your autonomic nervous system is in balance. High HRV also shows that you are in good health condition and have good recovery. A low HRV, on the other hand, can be a sign that there is an imbalance in your nervous system with too much stress. It can also be due to illness or overtraining.

Measuring HRV gives you a better understanding of your stress and health

What makes heart rate variability such a good marker for stress is that it measures your very personal reaction. The measurement results become more or less a window to what is happening inside your body. When you can see how your HRV is affected by the situations and environments you find yourself in — how you think, feel, and react — you can also gain deeper insights into how you can live a life with less stress and more balance. You can more easily see the connection between which things in your life make you feel stressed and thus understand what you need to adjust for a better balance. It is also possible to see what really gives you recovery.

In short, with the help of HRV it becomes easier to understand how your everyday life affects your health. In addition to being able to measure both stress and recovery, you can also get indications of how your diet affects your body; how physical activity can help you combat stress; how good sleep helps recovery, etc. If you measure HRV over a longer period, you also get an indication of how lifestyle changes can affect your mental fitness. You can see how your variety increases, and with it also positive feelings such as commitment and motivation. HRV becomes something of a health compass that guides you to the right path towards balance and well-being.

It is simple to measure HRV

Not so long ago you would have had to go to the doctor and get an ECG to measure your HRV. Today there are much simpler methods. New wearable technology – easy-to-handle wearables such as smart watches, bracelets and rings – has opened up completely new possibilities for measuring body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and body temperature, some even provide a figure for HRV but with low quality because they measure so far from the heart and the signal is disturbed when you move your hand. To measure HRV with good reliability in everyday life, there are chest straps that send data that is compiled and analyzed via an app. This allows you to see how your HRV changes and is affected by how your everyday life and behavior looks like. When you can pick up your body’s signals and have them visually interpreted, you also get a preventive tool, which can help you lead a more balanced life with less stress. Listening to your heart has taken on a new meaning.