Heart rate variability (HRV) has become an accepted biological marker for emotional resilience and behavioural flexibility. HRV measures the variation between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It operates independently of our thought process and regulates heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion. The ANS has a parasympathetic (rest) and a sympathetic (activation) branch. Heart rate variability is an indicator that both branches are functioning – the parasympathetic in particular.

Parasympathetic regulation lowers heart rate, allowing more room for variability between successive heartbeats, creating immediate changes that affect only a few beats at a time, after which the heart rate returns to normal rate. Sympathetic regulation affects consecutive beats, raising heart rate and so there is less variability between successive heartbeats.

The brain is constantly processing information through the hypothalamus. Depending on input, the hypothalamus, via the ANS, sends signals to the rest of the body either to activate or rest different functions. While in balance we effectively manage a wide range of external circumstances. Mental health problems can lead to this balance being disrupted through stress, anxiety, isolation or lack of sleep and the body’s fight-or-flight response can become over stimulated.

HRV biofeedback helps to identify ANS imbalances. A system under stress creates a low variation between heartbeats. In a calm state, the variation is higher. High HRV rates show more resilience and flexibility. Low HRV is associated with both physical and mental disorders. Low HRV usually relates to greater susceptibility to stress, leading to increased risk of stress-related disease and mental disorders such as heart disease, anxiety and trauma disorders. Biofeedback helps us make use of our HRV more efficiently and so better manage chronic stress, lessening the problems it inevitably causes.

This allows us to track how our nervous system is reacting to our external environment, as well as emotions, thoughts, and feelings. It gives insight and motivation as to small changes that make significant differences in developing emotional resilience and well-being.

Biofeedback also monitors sleep stages, sleep duration and sleep quality. Mental health disorders often affect sleep quality, and poor sleep can have a negative impact on mental health. Studies have shown that long term sleep problems can be a risk factor for the development of depressive disorders and increase anxiety. Biofeedback supports improved sleep patterns, controlling factors that affect the length and quality of sleep, resulting in increased emotional resilience, performance, trauma resolution and healing.

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