An Evolution in my Self-Care & Thinking on the Future of Trauma-Informed Care
Posted on February 7, 2019
If you’ve tuned into the Trauma-Informed Lens Podcast lately, you know that we’ve taken a deep dig into something called heart rate variability (HRV). To summarize a bunch of complex research, HRV measures the health of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your stress responses including the fight or flight response. Your parasympathetic nervous system promotes emotional regulation and cognitive/social engagement.
This complex interaction manifests itself in HRV. Your heart rate or pulse measures how many heart beats in a minute. HRV measures the variation in the time between your heart beats. A higher the variation of time between beats (higher HRV) the more relaxed, regulated, and healthy you are at that moment. A lower HRV indicates stress, fatigue, and difficulty managing the complexity of our work.
The more I learn about HRV the more I believe it could become the next big step forward for the helping professions especially those of us working with trauma. Unlike other concepts like epigenetics and neurobiology, HRV is relatively easy and cheap to measure. One of our podcast listeners suggested the Welltory app as a personal way to track HRV and gain insight to what our bodies are telling us about our current emotional, physical, and social health. Yes, one measure does hold all this knowledge (I don’t say it is the next big thing lightly!).
A couple of months ago I downloaded the Welltory app and started taking measurements (takes around 5 minutes) throughout the day. To get a measurement on a smartphone your camera’s flash lights up the blood vessels in your index finger while your camera captures the individual beats. Once the reading is over the app provides you with information on your current state and suggestions of activities you might consider improving your HRV and immediate health. The more you measure, the better the feedback. The paid version includes different assessments to further fine tune your results and suggested actions.
Most of the time, my readings reflect my subjective experience of my health and energy level. Even when the objective measure and my subjective experience differ, I find following the advice improvement my productivity, social engagement, and energy level. Here are some lessons I gained even after a few weeks:
- Exercise is great! However, HRV guides you in what type of exercise is most beneficial for your current state. For example, after my trip to Vegas this week my energy is lower (typical measurements after trainings and travel). Instead of going to the gym or run I will go on a long walk allowing my body and HRV to recover. Utilizing this approach will allow me to do something more strenuous tomorrow and reduce my risk of running my HRV lower and opening me up to illness and further fatigue.
- Caffeine is not the best thing for my body. Removing caffeine helped improve my HRV, and I feel much better, especially in the afternoons.
- My favorite video game which I played on the weekends was actually stressing me out. My stress was higher on the weekends when I played the game than any other time during the week. I’m taking an extended break!
- While it doesn’t surprise me that my HRV improves after my mindfulness or Tai Chi practice, I added contrast showers (alternating hot and cold water), reading a paperback book before bed, and an evening of Tai Chi practices and my HRV and sleep improved dramatically (cutting out caffeine probably helps too!).
I’m at the beginning of my personal journey into HRV both personally and professionally. I see a world of new potentials and possibilities for my own self-care and how we structure and provide care to those we serve. A great way to start to experience the power of HRV is to start tracking your own.
- The Welltory app is free, though there are paid subscriptions with more options. I was immediately hooked so I didn’t spend much time in the free versions.
- While I got to Welltory through a listener, there are other apps out there, if you choose a different one, please let me know how you like it!
- On Samsung phones, you get to choose to measure through the phone’s heart rate monitor or the camera. I started with the phone monitor and my scores were terrible, so much so I wondered if I need to visit the ER! Switching to the camera gave me much better readings and fears of a heart attack faded!