HRV – What It Is and Why I Track It

It’s a heart rate hack for PTSD, if you will. And it lets me know what I might be able to expect day to day based on how I experience stress.

There are no affiliate links in this post, and I’m not being paid for a damn thing. I think we’re all ok with that.

The best book I have read to date to help me understand PTSD is The Body Keeps the Score. I like research and data and analysis, so the approach to learning about and understanding PTSD really worked for me. It helped me make sense of what happened to me, what I experience and how to heal, and it gave me hope and comfort. That said, there are no trigger warnings, and it can be hard to listen to at times. It was definitely written by a researcher, the tone of the male reader is a bit flat and clinical, and it does not use caution with the trauma and symptom descriptions. Please take care in deciding if this is a helpful resource for you, and if you are in a place to tolerate it.

One of the tools from the research was monitoring Heart Rate Variability – HRV. From Wikipedia:

Heart rate variability is the physiological phenomenon of variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval. Other terms used include: “cycle length variability”, “RR variability”, and “heart period variability”.

HRV is used in medicine and sports/fitness because it can measure your heart health as well as your state of recovery or stress or activation. The greater the variation in the time interval between your heartbeats, the more relaxed or recovered your body is. You can think about it like the more relaxed your body is, the more variability in your heart rate. Your heart can kind of do its thing on its own time, because everything is cool. However, if you are under stress, let’s say you experience PTSD and you are activated or triggered, so you are under a lot of stress (even if it’s not “real”) and on high alert, your brain tells your heart that you need to be tensed up and ready to fight or flee, and your heart rate variability shortens because your body tightens up and gets prepared for whatever your brain thinks you are about to have to do. Your heart pumps now have more purpose and intensity, and it has to show up to work rather than meander around.

Once I learned that information I decided to test it out. If I can strap on a heart rate monitor and be more aware of how I’m doing (because years of numbing have left me still trying to work on self-awareness and I often still don’t realize I’m headed for a panic attack or trigger until it’s too late) I am all for it, so I did some research and settled on a monitor and an app.

I use a Polar H10, which has bluetooth capability and can talk to my phone or laptop. I had a Polar heart rate monitor years ago when I was working out a lot and I really liked it, but it has since died (too much sweat – ha!) and I needed the bluetooth capability, which is a new feature. The H7 also has Bluetooth, but I think when I bought it the H10 was a little cheaper on Amazon? There are a lot of options for heart rate monitors, including new finger sensors that you just slip over your index finger, but I wanted something less expensive and that I could use for workouts as well. The H10 will record a workout that it can send to my phone when I sync it later.

I use the Elite HRV app, which is geared toward fitness and not PTSD but which works fairly well and gives me a readout that I can understand and work with. It’s free to download, and they offer a lot of articles and info that I pay no attention to.

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The app has a Morning Readiness setting, which is what I use to check how I’m doing when I wake up. You can take a reading any time, and after checking throughout the day and in various mental states for the first week, I now just check in the mornings. I put the strap on, open the app, wait for it to read the monitor, then hit the Start button and let it go for 2 minutes while I sit still on the edge of my bed.

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When I started taking readings, I had a rough idea that a score of 59 would be a “good” score, and that I would likely be lower because I’m not in great cardio shape and I have PTSD. That was correct, and I was often reading in the 30s and low 40s. That has changed over the last few months, and a good score for me is in the 50s. If I am above or below that by a lot (10 or so points or more) it indicates that I may not be able to tolerate much stress that day without having problems. This morning I was a 6, which didn’t surprise me given the week I’ve had. 10 is the best, I’ve been a 3 before and that day had a massive meltdown that left me crying in a parking lot for an hour.

It isn’t perfect, but it does help me know where I am and how to take care of myself. If I’m in the green, I can probably proceed as usual with my day and not take any special measures. If I’m in the yellow, I need to pay attention to how I feel and be a bit cautious about putting myself in situations that can cause stress or know that I may be very tired by the end of the day and not be very able to handle personal drama calmly. If I’m in the red, I need to practice a lot of self care and be kind and forgiving toward myself. And this isn’t just because the colors dictate my experience, I’ve been testing this out and found it to be fairly accurate. Some days I can have a reading that seems to be higher than how I feel, so I tend to go with how I feel rather than the score when that happens. Sometimes if I score a 2 I’ll check again just to be sure it was an accurate reading, because a 2 is panic button bad and not a good idea for me to leave the house.

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It’s a process, I’m still learning, but I think it’s helping and I’m watching as I change my practices over time to incorporate more exercise, yoga and meditation – things I hope will contribute to long-term improvement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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