In this article I want to discuss a simple solution to your problems related to stress. I promise I will give you the answer to your fried nerves. First, I want to make sure we are on the same page regarding the origin of your stress problem.
TL:DR – There are simple technologies that represent the 80/20 solution to curing your mental problems
You see if you are stressed out, or suffering from a clinical, or sub-clinical condition having to do with stress or anxiety, you are part of the 1/3 of adults who are dealing with a stress related disease. Many people are in the same boat and are suffering from a serious stress related disorder.
While I would like to say that it’s just normal, and humans have always been stressed, I don’t think that is the case. The development of modern social structures and technologies have created new anxieties that could not have been imagined a generation ago. Don’t believe me? Ask Freud. While I don’t consider his work “the last word” on human psychology, apparently he spent a good amount of time trying to figure people out and might have stumbled upon a few core truths about humans.
People suffer from mental ills that are far beyond anything the human’s are designed to deal with. Luckily, humans are also designed to be problem solving geniuses. this genius has allowed us to develop technologies to assist us in navigating our increasingly complex word.
Technologies like electrocardiography (ECG) monitors and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitors allow us to measure our brain waves and nervous system activity in real time. These monitors allow you to see in real time the affect that your thoughts and behaviors are having on your nervous system.
Since your nervous system controls the release of nearly every hormone in your body, the way you feel in any given moment is largely due to the interplay between your thoughts, your nervous system’s response to those thoughts, and the changing levels of various hormones based on the nervous system’s input.
Sounds Cool, If This Is So Great Why Don’t I Know About It
Like most important things in life, you have been lied to about the nature of reality by the illuminati….
Alright, not really, let me rephrase that. Like most things in life that are simple but difficult, the elegant solution to mental health issues has been ignored by most people.
As practitioners of meditation have known for thousands of years, you can train your attention and subsequently your thoughts. By controlling your thoughts, you can control your nervous and endocrine systems as well as behaviors to a large degree.
There are two main reasons that you did not know you could get better at pretty much anything by training your attention. The first is that the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is not incentivized by simple DIY solutions. The second reason is the mental practice is not exciting. Nothing about training your attention makes for a good Facebook ad or sales page.
Regardless of the lack of sophistication, training your attention works, and it’s affects are slowly becoming more popular. This is mostly due to the fact that there are some very good in house devices you can now use to measure either brain wave activity or heart rate variability. The success of these devices and the accuracy with which they can predict your resistance to a number pf physiological ills is astounding.
As mentioned above electrocardiography (ECG) monitors and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitors are the most common means of measuring stress related biomarkers. The question is, what proof is there that biofeedback devices accurately measure stress and mental health.
What Proof Is There That Biofeedback Can Predict Mental Health?
In the past, researchers have noted that emotional regulation (ER), impulse control and emotional clarity are related to resting baseline Heart Rate Variability. This study wanted to find out weather changes in Heart Rate Variability were related to self perceived levels of emotional regulation (ER) including the above mentioned impulse control and emotional clarity.
This study involved 183 undergraduate students who had their heart rate variability measured at baseline in a controlled environment for 5 minutes. They then went about their normal activities and answered various questions about their emotional state and response to people throughout the day. This data was recorded on a questionnaire known as the Difficulties in Emotional Regulation Scale.
Image Credit – NCBI
The researchers uncovered that there was a strong correlation between self perceived difficulty in emotional regulation (DERS) and baseline heart rate variability. You can see on the graph that the lower levels of difficulty in emotional regulation corresponds with a higher heart rate variability.
This study is unique because it relies on “self-perceived” difficulties in emotional regulation. When researchers measure for actual cognitive impairments using standardized tests, they find an even stronger correlation between mental performance and baseline heart rate variability.
This test shows that different physiological states related to varying levels of baseline heart rate variability can be felt in a very real way. This “feeling” has to do with the interplay between the pre-frontal cortex, the sub-cortical brain structures and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The researchers explain the interplay between these systems with a model they call the Neuro-Visceral Integration model (NIM).
“Therefore, the NIM posits that vagally mediated HRV (vmHRV) may be more than just a simple index of healthy heart function, but may in fact serve as readily available measure and index of the degree to which the brain’s integrative system for adaptive regulation provides flexible control over the periphery.”
This neuro-visceral integration model (NIM) relies on the idea that the pre-frontal cortex has a regulatory function over sub-cortical structures such as the amygdala. Researchers note that the activation of these cortical structures at rest indicates greater levels of control over the emotional response.
This greater level of control is attributed to the cascade of inhibition which starts with the pre-frontal cortex’s inhibition of sub cortical structures such as the amygdala and subsequently effects the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This global physiological effect is what is most likely responsible for the better “feelings” subjects with higher baseline heart rate variability scores reported in the above mentioned study.
“heart rate variability (HRV)—serves not only as an index of healthy heart function (Thayer and Lane, 2007), but as an readily available index and measure of inhibitory control, and more specifically, ER capacity.”
In a discussion of the Neuro-visceral Model, researchers emphasize that baseline Hear Rate Variability has be shown to strongly correlate with individual’s emotional responses, as indexed by emotion-modulated startle responses, fear-potentiated startle responses, phasic heart rate responses, and behavioral emotional responses. Researchers have even found that individual’s ability to suppress unwanted thoughts is also directly correlated with an individual’s baseline heart rate variability.
The suppression of unwanted thoughts is a particularly important psychological marker as rumination and anxiety are both largely caused by unwanted thoughts. Rumination and anxiety are also key components of the common mental disorders: General Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. It’s no surprise that nearly every study related to mental functioning and heart rate variability shows a decrease in disorder symptoms with higher baseline heart rate variability.
What Practical Thing Can You Do At Home To Stress Less and Relax?
Beyond simply researching various bio-markers, scientists have also looked at ways to improve mental health correlates such as heart rate variability.
In this study researchers looked at the connection between heart rate variability and the practice of Vipassana meditation. as expected, the subjects experienced increased levels of well being from the meditation practice. These measures were found to be correlated with higher levels of heart rate variability.
This video is a good primer on vipassana meditation:
Researchers have also looked at the ZaZen breathing, a traditional form of meditation used by practitioners of Zen. What researchers found, was that experienced practitioners were able to increase measures of heart rate variability during practice of this type of meditation. After practicing, these subjects were able to carry this higher heart rate variability with them through out the day.
This video has subtitle explanations for the experience the ZaZen practitioner is going through in the video:
Researchers found similar results with a form of meditation known as pranic healer meditation. Unfortunately, the videos on youtube that cover this topic seem to be largely people explaining their spiritual beliefs rather then a concise description of the practice. If you are a practitioner or are interested in finding out the details of the study, you can check it out here.
Heart Rate Variability Training
Ben Greenfield of Ben Grennfield Fitness does an excellent job of explaining how to use heart rate variability monitors to increase your heart rate variability and performance over time. This is super helpful as most of the channels only talk about heart rate variability as it relates to sports performance. Ben has many articles on HRV training and sports performance, but this one gets into the practical steps to increase performance every day.
Alright, there you have it, a couple of ways to get started feeling better today. One main issue that always comes up with discussions of meditation is the idea that you can use it to enhance performance. Due to psychologies focus on the negative aspects of psychology for the majority of the last 50 years, most psychological practices are aimed at remedying some problem.
Only recently has mainstream psychological research explored serious ways to enhance performance. We can get into the reasons behind this in another article. Needless to say, using these practices to enhance performance is completely different then using them to minimize or cure mental illness.
A good analogy for the difference between stopping mental illness and seriously enhancing mental performance is the difference in intensity and volume of exercise used during training for rehabilitation vs. strength. In rehabilitation, you might be using only a couple pounds during your exercise for a few sets. Serious strength training on the other hand might require you to be in the gym 6 days per weeks using hundreds of lbs. for a total weekly/monthly volume in the hundreds of thousands of lbs. Be forewarned, these mental practices are no different.