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Fast cars need good brakes, your nervous system does too

Imagine you have been offered a once in a lifetime experience doing a hot lap in a race car, capable of hitting speeds of over 300km/h. You prepare yourself and hop in the passenger seat. You are nervous. Actually, you are terrified. You come screaming into the first turn, heart pounding, your sweaty palms gripping the side of the seat. How can you possibly slow down enough to make the corner?


Fortunately, the driver knows that the fastest cars also have the best brakes, and you enjoy the exhilaration of cornering at speed in a safe and controlled manner.


The human nervous system operates a bit like the accelerator and brakes on a car. The sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator, it speeds up your heart rate and enables you to go. This is often called the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is the brake — it slows your heart down so that you can “rest and recover”.


When you are healthy, the nervous system works in balance, just like a good car that can speed up and slow down quickly when you want it to. What often happens, however, is that you can get stuck in sympathetic overdrive, which means the foot gets stuck on the (metaphorical) accelerator.


This happens when you are in a constant state of stress. In this state, even when you stop and lie down to go to sleep, the body remains on high alert. It is as if your car is pulled over on the side of the road with the handbrake on but it’s still revving because the foot is on the accelerator. You aren’t going anywhere but the car is overheating. After a while, this can completely wear you out and deplete your energy. Your performance drops and so does your mood. This phenomenon has been studied extensively and can be objectively measured through timing changes between your heart beats.


This is the science of heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the measure of the health of the nervous system, and it can show you, in real time, how you are travelling.


Generally speaking, high heart rate variability tells you that the body is rested and ready to go; it has a high tolerance for stress. Low heart rate variability signals that the accelerator is on and the body is still revving in response to stress. It doesn’t matter where the stress comes from, it still impacts the same system. It could be that you’ve had a hard day of physical training, or that you’ve been emotionally under stress, or even you are beginning to get sick and your body is fighting an internal stressor.

This is so important to understand because often you can be unaware of the sources of your stress and the impact that they are having. Recognising these enables you to actually do something about them.

So, to get to where you want to go and to feel your best and perform your best, you need to have your nervous system working for you not against you. You need both great acceleration and also great brakes. Fortunately, you can measure and reclaim control of you accelerator and brake, through some simple exercises.


The most direct way to improve HRV is through HRV guided breathing, which involves breathing at or near your resonant frequency - the breathing rate that brings your heart rate and breathing most in synch and causes the largest oscillations between each inhale and exhale (e.g. heart rate increases to, say, 70bpm with each inhale and drops to 45bpm with each exhale).


For the majority of people, their resonant frequency is around 6 breaths per minute. HRV guided breathing has been shown to be effective in improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s also been used to improve breathing efficiency, athletic, music, dance and academic performance.


To get started in HRV guided breathing and strengthen your nervous system’s ability to recover from stress, try breathing in for 5 seconds - and out for 5 seconds, for 5-minutes twice a day and see what a difference it can make to you.

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