11 mins read

Stress, HRV & Meditation

Our stress levels have reached pandemic proportions - impacting our ability to think clearly, feel motivated and enjoy life.

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In this article:

Article Highlights:

  • Stress and the allostatic load – why we simply can’t cope!
  • Why stress is so detrimental for the heart.
  • The electrical nature of the heart and brain.
  • Connecting physical systems electrically and coherently.
  • Styles of meditation proven to improve HRV.
  • How Basis supports your meditation routine.

Many modern electrical appliances, like washing machines, use fuzzy logic. This helps the appliance to efficiently adapt - for a half full washing machine the amount of water, heat and effort is different to that for a full machine. But what if the fuzzy chip went wrong? What if instead of predicting the needs of 8kg at 30 degrees the chip decided it was 20kg at 60 degrees? The washing machine would no longer be efficient and it would use more electricity and water than required. It is also more likely to wear out bearings and other parts sooner.

Humans also rely on a predictive capacity like fuzzy logic, used to efficiently manage our energy needs. But, unlike a washing machine, we can’t just consume more electricity and water if we miscalculate our needs.

Homeostasis is internal balance, keeping neutral blood pH, glucose levels and our biochemistry within set ranges.

Allostasis is the efficient regulation of energy to satisfy changing needs and respond dynamically.

Stress is like a request for more energy to cope with a bigger task (fighting, running away etc.)

Allostatic load is the wear and tear on the body due to the demands placed upon it.

Just like the confused washing machine, excess stress diminishes your ability to correctly predict energy demands. Your internal fuzzy logic might be preparing for an emergency that never happens. By living in a stressed state, the body wears out prematurely, increasing the risk of disease, accelerating ageing and negatively impacting the architecture of the brain.

Stressful Statistics

Over 75% of US adults experience levels of stress that impact their physical or mental health. More than half the country can’t sleep due to stress and a third have extreme levels of stress (dramatically escalating the risk of disease and mental health issues). Worldwide stress levels are also increasing and depression has become a leading cause of disability worldwide.

Stress is subjective and individual thinking patterns and past experiences play a significant role in our ability to respond in a healthy way. Resilience involves the coping skills and strategies learned to reduce the impact of stressful events on the mind and body.

Big businesses are already listing resilience as a critical hiring factor for the new normal of the future working world. Our ability to adapt is valuable. Employees and entrepreneurs who can stay on top of dynamic environments, quickly interpret new information, solve problems and create innovative solutions are in demand.

Sadly, our ability to cope with stress has been exceeded and the statistics clearly show most people are not thriving in the current climate. Mental stress impacts the entire body, wearing it out before its time, and causes racing repetitive thoughts, obliterates focus and reduces esteem. It can also be fatal.

“Severe mental stress can even result in sudden death.”
Italian Journal of Cardiology

Cardiac Crisis

Stress is often assumed to mean mental stress (worries and concerns emanating from the brain) but physical stress (inflammation, toxins from bacteria in the gut, smoke in the lungs etc.) also create stress. It’s a single cumulative system which ‘adds up’ all the various ways in which you stress, or support, your body.

We’re only just beginning to understand the impact of the different ways in which we stress ourselves out. For example the mental stress of loneliness equates to the same physical stress as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Increasing levels of psychological stress (which is dependent on personality, social inclusion and life events) elevates the risk of sudden cardiac death. The long-term impact of stress damages the heart and impairs our ability to regulate the entire cardiovascular system.  Add to this poor diet, alcohol, and lack of movement – all of which create physical stress – and the picture becomes clearer. Heart Disease is the leading cause of premature death worldwide.

Evidence strongly suggests that it’s not a single factor (or bad genetic luck) that leads to cardiovascular disease; it’s the culmination of our lifestyle choices and mental landscape. Either our body and brain correctly gauge energy demands, or our fuzzy logic goes out the window and we waste precious resources.

Anxiety and depression are known to increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. In depressed patients the heart loses its ability to modulate its activity and the blood becomes thicker – making heart attacks more likely. There is growing awareness that we need to factor in emotions and mental stress into our model of disease. External factors such as air pollution, heavy metals, toxins, mould and specific foods also contribute to the allostatic burden that our bodies are coping with. The difficulty is working out which of the stressors is having the most impact on us personally.

“Between 20 and 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors.

Psychiatria Danubina

Cardiac Coherence

For the last three decades the HeartMath Institute has been developing practical tools to reduce stress by enhancing the communication between the heart and brain. Essentially they have developed methods to let you intervene with your own fuzzy logic!

“A heart rate that is variable and responsive to demands is believed to bestow a survival advantage, whereas reduced heart rate variability (HRV) may be associated with poorer cardiovascular health and outcomes”.  

Canadian Journal of Cardiology

Integrating the heart and brain creates a more efficient control system which can better respond to the demands of life. Developing heart-brain coherence has huge health benefits, and with it comes a sense of satisfaction from being in charge of your own body and its responses.

The heart is much more than a pump and when we factor in all its functions the relationship between emotions and heart disease becomes more obvious.  The four functions of the heart:

  1. Pumping – physically forcing blood through a system of ‘plumbing’ and creating a pulse pressure wave you can feel in your wrist.
  2. Communicating – neurons in the heart create a bi-directional communication network with the brain, the heart has its own ‘brain’ of over 40,000 neurons that is constantly ‘talking’ to the main-brain.
  3. Regulating – the heart acts like an endocrine organ, producing a range of peptides that act like hormones on the cardiovascular system and brain.
  4. Electrifying – the heart produces an electromagnetic field bigger than the brain that surrounds the body and can be measured emanating for 1-2m (3-5 feet) outside the body.

The discovery and quantification of the heart’s electromagnetic field supports our understanding of emotions and their impact. By measuring the heart’s electromagnetic field (which emanates in a donut-like shape) it’s possible to visualise different emotions.  Negative emotions such as anger, frustration and resentment create an incoherent (disorganised) electromagnetic field, while positive emotions such as love, gratitude and joy create a coherent (organised) electromagnetic field.

The best news is you can create coherence in the field yourself with some relatively simple and quick exercises that focus your attention and emotions (a bit like meditation, but easier). Wait, it gets better! By using an easily measurable biometric called heart rate variability, you can actually see for yourself exactly how coherent you are, and get feedback about the impact of your everyday activities and choices.

“Self-induced positive emotions increase the coherence in bodily processes, which is reflected in the pattern of the heart’s rhythm. This shift in the heart rhythm in turn plays an important role in facilitating higher cognitive functions, creating emotional stability and facilitating states of calm. “

Frontiers in Psychology

Improving heart coherence can be seen in your heart rate variability (HRV) which many wearables track. The Basis Health App provides and plans activities in your day to increase your HRV which in turn can help you feel more relaxed, energetic and happy.

Heart Rate Variability

Your heart has an electrical pacemaker which sets a regular rhythm. This rhythm is also adaptable and responsive to the energy demands of the body.  When the heart and brain are working well together there is coherence in the electromagnetic field and the heart rate variability is high.

Tracked on a graph this would produce a nice sine-wave. Conversely when the heart and brain do  not effectively understand each other (due to stress and other interference) heart rate variability is low and on a graph this would look irregular. These dynamic beat-to-beat changes are influenced by emotions, thoughts and movement. They also influence how well we are able to solve problems and think critically.

Measuring HRV

Positive emotions directly increase cortical blood flow in the higher perceptual centres of the brain while negative emotions reduce it. This means by paying attention to your HRV you can predict how well you can solve a problem or get creative. If you want to get into mental flow, or just use your energy efficiently it's wise to address this cortical issue first.

“Positive emotions not only feel better subjectively, but tend to increase synchronisation of the body’s systems, thereby enhancing energy and enabling us to function with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Dr Lucia Giombini, Chartered Clinical Psychologist

HRV is an effective and non-invasive measurement of the effective operation of your entire body, including the nervous system (which acts like the accelerator and break), your emotions, your energy and psychological state.

High HRV equates to better health overall and low HRV is associated with poorer mental and physical health. Remember the washing machine? A brand new super-efficient one would have a high HRV, an old one leaking on the floor and leaving your clothes a bit dirty and dripping wet would have a low HRV.

High HRV means you are able to respond to stress, turning it on when needed, but critically also being able to turn it off. This is what most people are lacking. We get ‘stuck’ in stress, and physical issues like inflammation and poor diet make the issue worse.

Monitoring your HRV increases awareness of your own emotions, habits and behaviours making it easier to implement lifestyle changes and self-regulate (making better choices). How many times have you grabbed junk food or wasted time on social media when you are tired, sad or bored? If you had known that your HRV was low, you could have proactively made a choice that is better for your overall health.

What Impacts HRV?

  • Negative internal dialogue (thought patterns and loops)
  • Provoking emotional responses through reciting old, painful memories
  • Repetitive emotions with the feeling of no escape
  • Taking part in stressful situations such as being in a toxic work environment
  • Engaging in destructive coping mechanisms such as smoking or drinking
  • Being unable to balance general tasks and chores
  • Dehydration or malnourishment
  • Overloaded by stimuli (too much to do)
  • Under stimulation or lack of healthy distractions (not enough to do)
  • Lack of exercise

Why improve HRV?

  • Increases the brain’s ability to process information
  • Greater ability to make decisions, solve problems and be creative
  • Improved response to stress, aka resilience
  • Enables the body to engage in deeper relaxation
  • Better quality sleep
  • Enhances physical endurance
  • Plays a role in exceptional longevity

Meditation and Attention Regulation

When we think of meditation most people imagine sitting still in silence, legs crossed, eyes closed. But this is just one of the many methods to concentrate attention. Walking in nature with a mindful approach or speaking to someone with loving-kindness are also forms of meditation.

To meditate is to focus one's full attention on a single activity ‘regulating’ our attention, being actively in charge (also called mindful) so that mental energy is not allowed to ‘wander’ but becomes laser focused. This goes beyond the cognitive thinking mind and sustains a non-reactive awareness of arising sensory data. Being in a meditative state allows brain waves to slow down enough to find a state of relaxation, between the conscious and subconscious mind.

Meditation is an accessible tool available for anyone, anywhere. It dramatically enhances resilience, improves HRV and is completely free. It can be practiced any time of day, at home, on public transport, out in nature or even during a work break.

There are many more mediation styles than you might expect, giving you plenty of freedom to choose what works. If you spend all day sitting, an active movement based mediation might be best. On-going studies to verify the impact of meditation on HRV provide some simple methods to investigate for yourself:

Meditation Types

Broadly there are five types of meditation and each one has many styles:

  1. Body-centered - using the body as a point of focus with a deep breath through the nose and focusing on the physical sensations - great for an active mind
  2. Mindful observation - sitting silently and allowing your thoughts to pass by, bring your attention back to the silent space - easier to achieve after a body centred or movement meditation
  3. Mantra meditation - choose a mantra or sound to repeat whilst sitting in a meditative position or during activities like walking - effective for emotional regulation
  4. Visual concentration - focus on a calming object such a candle or the waves of the ocean, try to bring the attention back every time it wanders - perfect for nature lovers
  5. Movement meditation - take a mindful walk and be aware of your surroundings and your body, including practises like Hatha, Vinyasa or Kriya yoga - improves flexibility and strength.

Taking Control

Meditation is a form of mental training which literally makes your brain change (it’s called neuroplasticity, it encourages adaptability and mental strength. Here’s how to enhance your meditation practice:

  • Set up a specific space to do your practice in, decorate it with meaningful items.
  • Use lo-fi music or white noise utilizing natural frequencies of 432 Hz or 741 Hz.
  • Scent the space using Sage, Palo Santo, Essential oils or Incense.
  • Create a meditation routine ie. 5 mins at 8am every morning.
  • Choose a type of meditation that resonates with you.
  • Integrate mindfulness into your day to day tasks.
  • Be flexible and change techniques depending on how you feel
  • Use an application to prompt, guide and encourage you (e.g. Headspace or Calm)

How Basis Can Help

Interpreting HRV might be difficult, confusing or even become tedious after a while. With Basis, you don’t need to worry about trying to understand what your HRV means. Instead, Basis learns about your HRV through your wearable data and automatically interprets that into the appropriate activities in your day.


11 mins read
Stress, HRV & Meditation

Our stress levels have reached pandemic proportions - impacting our ability to think clearly, feel motivated and enjoy life.

In this article:

Article Highlights:

  • Stress and the allostatic load – why we simply can’t cope!
  • Why stress is so detrimental for the heart.
  • The electrical nature of the heart and brain.
  • Connecting physical systems electrically and coherently.
  • Styles of meditation proven to improve HRV.
  • How Basis supports your meditation routine.