Life can be stressful sometimes. In fact, life is stressful a lot of the time — a 2014 survey from the American Psychological Association found that 74% of Americans are chronically stressed, and that job pressure, money, health, and relationships are the top four causes of overwhelm in the average person.
Stress is a normal part of life, and your stress levels are going to fluctuate. You’ll have calm times, stressful times, disastrous times, and everything in between. Learning how to handle your stress with grace is a worthwhile goal.
One of the pillars of health is resilience: your ability to withstand stressful times and recover from them quickly. The good news is that you can build up your resilience — and, with a little practice, you can handle far more stress than you think you can.
The most difficult part of resilience (and recovery) is timing. It’s hard to know when to keep pushing yourself and when to rest. That’s where heart rate variability (HRV) comes in. HRV is an objective measure of your stress level. With HRV, you can learn when to roll with stress and when to recover from it, which is an essential tool for becoming more resilient. HRV applies to physical stress too — it tells you when your body has recovered from a hard workout, which prevents you from pushing yourself to burnout.
This article will explore the cycle of chronic stress that most of us experience, how to use your stress to your advantage, and how, by tracking your HRV, you can learn when to keep pushing and when to recover.
General Adaptation Syndrome: the cycle of chronic stress
You may have heard about your fight-or-flight response. Basically, when you’re surprised by an immediate danger, your body transforms: you start pumping out adrenaline and cortisol and you send blood to your muscles and heart, all so you have the energy to either attack the immediate threat (fight) or run from it (flight).
The fight-or-flight response has kept humans alive for hundreds of thousands of years. However, we don’t face immediate, life-threatening danger too often these days. For that reason, fight-or-flight isn’t usually useful in modern life.
Modern threats aren’t usually so immediate. They’re less tangible and they usually happen over time. We’ve replaced hungry tigers with looming work deadlines. Instead of starvation, we fear running out of money.
These threats are quite real, but because they’re gradual and theoretical, they affect us differently than immediate danger does. Hans Seyle, a Canadian endocrinologist, discovered that you respond to chronic stress over time in a different way. He developed the idea of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).
GAS shows how you respond to long-term stress. He breaks it down into three stages:
- Stage 1: Alarm. The stressor hits you. At first, you’re shocked, but you quickly regain your footing and begin to deal with the stressor.
- Stage 2: Resistance. You face the stressor and learn how to deal with it. This is where you build resilience: by handling stressful situations, you get better at managing similar stressors in the future.
- Stage 3: Recovery or Exhaustion. This is where you reach a crossroads: if you recover here, you’ll level up your stress response and become stronger in the future. But if you keep pushing yourself when your body needs rest, you’ll fall into exhaustion. Your resiliency will plummet and stress will start to take a heavy toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health. You’ll also become significantly less productive. Over time, chronic exhaustion can cause long-term damage to your body and brain.
The biggest challenge here is identifying the crossroads between recovery and exhaustion, and choosing to recover instead of pushing yourself past the brink. This is where heart rate variability comes in.
HRV: an objective view of your stress levels
Chronic stress tends to sneak up on you, and when you’re overwhelmed with things to do, it can be challenging to get out of your head and know whether you should keep pushing or rest.
HRV is an objective measure of your stress response. Your doctor probably measured your heart rate (the number of times your heart beats per minute) the last time you went in for a check-up. But your heart doesn’t beat with a steady rhythm — there are fluctuations in the time between each heartbeat. That’s what HRV measures: the variability in time between this heartbeat (bump-bump) and the next one (bump-bump) and the next one (bump-bump).
HRV is a great measure of how resilient your nervous system is. When your nervous system is healthy, your HRV will be high, which is a sign that you’re rested and can adapt to the demands of your environment in real time.
When your nervous system is chronically stressed, it’s in a state of constant vigilance, and your HRV will be low. If your HRV is consistently low, that means you’ve pushed yourself too hard. You need to take a break and recover until your HRV is high again.
By measuring your HRV every day, you can get a real-time, unbiased view of your stress levels. Tracking your HRV lets you understand exactly when your nervous system is overwhelmed — a sign that it’s time to recover.
Track HRV to improve your stress, sleep, recovery, and more
Biostrap is the most accurate and convenient way to track your heart rate variability, for several reasons.
- Clinical-Grade HRV and Deep Sleep Tracking: Biostrap utilizes a clinical-quality PPG sensor that allows us to gather and analyze extremely precise heartbeat data. Biostrap is a proven, clinically validated leader in noctural biometric sleep tracking.
- Accuracy: Biostrap analyzes your biometrics and movement with two sensors: one on your wrist and one on your ankle. Having two measurement sites allows Biostrap to track complex movements and collect twice as much data as a single-point monitor. With twice the data, you get more accurate insight into how your body’s performing.
- Convenience: Biostrap is lightweight and specially designed to be comfortable. You can wear it while you work, while you exercise, and even while you sleep. It’s also waterproof and can withstand physical force. Biostrap lets you collect data about your health 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- Simplicity: Biostrap transforms the data it collects into actionable, intuitive, real-time feedback about what you can do to improve your health. It links to an app on your phone that tells you about your sleep, muscle recovery, stress levels, and more.
Biostrap tracks HRV, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, sleep quality, and more. It’s the ultimate “biohacker’s toolkit” for understanding how your body’s doing what you need to increase your performance. Biostrap gives you invaluable insight into your stress levels and shows you exactly when it’s time to recover.
How to recover from acute and chronic stress
First things first: it’s okay to be bad at relaxing. A lot of us don’t know how to turn off and destress. It may feel strange at first, and that’s okay. As you build cycles of stress and recovery into your life, you’ll get better and better at truly relaxing. Recovery takes practice.
If you’re acutely stressed — meaning your HRV is just beginning to drop, which is a sign that you’re starting to push yourself too far — you have a wide variety of recovery tools that can ease stress and get you back to a rested state. A few of the best ones are:
- Meditation and guided breathing
- Float tanks (also called sensory deprivation tanks)
- Water therapy (soaking in a tub of either warm or cold water. Add epsom salt for bonus relaxation)
- Active recovery training (low-intensity exercise that gets your blood flowing and wakes up your muscles without stressing them)
- Therapy (Acupuncture, talk therapy, massage therapy, etc.)
If you’ve been chronically stressed for a long time, your HRV will stay low, and the above techniques may not increase it. This is a sign that there’s a consistent stressor in your lifestyle that’s sapping your energy. It may be:
- Physical activity (undertraining or overtraining)
- Environment (poor air quality, mold, airborne toxins)
- Sleep/rest (chronic sleep deprivation, poor sleep quality)
- Mental/emotional/social stress (personal, family, or work stress)
- Drug and alcohol use
For tools you can use to address these more chronic stressors, take a look at the Biostrap blog. You also may want to enlist the help of a professional. Asking a professional for help can be intimidating, but the payoff to your mental and emotional performance is worth it.
Resilience to stress — and recovery from it — starts with understanding your stress levels and how they change over time. Biostrap can help you track your stress and show you when to rest, as well as your increasing resilience to stress over time. Learn how to use stress to your advantage. Pick up a Biostrap today and start tracking your health. With the right approach, you can become far more resilient than you think.