How does my heart rate show if I'm stressed?

Your heart holds the secret to your stress levels. Nuffield Health's Head of Clinical Wellbeing explains why, and how you can use heart rate variability to combat the effects of stress.

Stress is something that affects us both mentally and physically and can be detected by looking at our heart rate variability. Heart rate variability looks at how our heart beats to indicate how our body is responding to stressors, both good and bad. 

If we have a recorded heart rate of 60 beats per minute (bpm) it is unlikely that each beat is exactly a second apart. In broad terms our heart may beat at 40 beats for the first 30 seconds and 20 beats in the second 30 seconds – 60 beats in total over the minute. If we were to break this down further into 4, 15 second blocks our heart rate may be 20 beats, 10 beats, 15 beats and 15 beats, still the total is 60 beats over the minute.

If we were to break this down to each beat to beat the first one may be 1.5 seconds apart from the second beat and that one 1.1 seconds apart from the third beat. The more variation between each beat the better with lots of variation linked to protection of the heart. Conversely, a heart rate with little variation with consistently 1 second between beats is a sign that our bodies are under stress, which if it persists in the long term can result in weight gain, increased blood pressure, reduced happiness and an increased risk of common conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Now it is possible to use Heart Rate Variability to help train your body and mind to be agile, flexible and resilient. Some research has shown that when we combine deep, controlled breathing with positive psychology we not only increase the variation of our heart rate but we can also control how the variation changes. 

By breathing deeply in a 5 second in and 5 second out tempo our heart rate begins to slowly increase and slowly decrease to form a wave shape. When our heart rate forms a wave this is called a ‘Coherent Heart Rate Pattern’ linked to greater activation of the part of our brain responsible for emotions, applying meaning, problem solving and creativity. In addition, when we attain we inhibit the primitive parts of our brain associated with survival. 

You optimise mental wellbeing, emotional regulation and resilience by practicing simple techniques and trying to recognise and control your emotions. Below are a few examples you can try to help achieve this and it should be noted that these are entry level tools and not designed to treat any form of mental illness.

Deep breathing

Simply taking time to deeply breathe is the basis of relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga and Pilates. The best way to control your breathing is using your diaphragm with a 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out tempo. To breathe expand the sides of your rib cage and push out your belly as your breathe in and relax these areas as your breathe out. As you breathe in try to keep your shoulders still and your chest from expanding out. At first these will be difficult and feel odd so trying placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly button for feedback.

Deep breathing in this manner for even 60 seconds has profound effects on our bodies and instantly starts to inhibit our primitive, survival area of our brain to allow us to mental perform at our best. Use this skill tactically and try to do 60 seconds of deep breathing before high pressure events such as big meetings, presentations, interviews or sporting events. 

Three good things

A common positive psychology practice where you record three good things that have happened to you or someone else, each night, for a week. For example this could be you caught up with a friend, which you really enjoyed or similarly that friend just told you they are having a baby and although that didn’t happen to you it still made you feel good. Better still try having these good things up on a wall or somewhere all together so you can appreciate them in their entirety at the end of the week. 

Sleep well not long

The health industry is very interested in sleep now that wearable health technologies are readily available. However, we are still overly concerned with the duration of sleep rather than the quality of sleep. Insight by Nuffield Health shows that roughly 75% of people get 7–9 hours sleep per night but only roughly 25% feel refreshed and agree the quality of sleep was good.

Sleep routine encourages you to have a consistent internal clock by going to bed and rising at the same time each night, prioritising 10pm to 6am as this is where most physical and mental repair is performed. Furthermore, the 30 minutes prior to sleep are crucial and you need to prepare your brain, heart rate variability and body to go straight into deep sleep. You can do this by reading, stretching, listening to music or as importantly mentioned earlier, deep breathing or meditation.

Sleep hygiene concerns where you sleep and you need to consider light, noise and heat. Your bedroom should be 100% pitch black as our skin has photoreceptors that pick up even the most minuscule amount of light to limit sleep depth. Likewise we often wake from poor thermoregulation and it is best to have layers you can peel off or lose if required. Finally, if you struggle with noise try a white noise machine as it is not the amount of noise but rather the change in volume (i.e. silent to loud) that disturbs us and white noise acts as an auditory ‘buffer’. 

If you need some extra help with easing stress, we have a range of mental health support.

Last updated Friday 7 October 2022

First published on Tuesday 23 June 2015