Promising research suggests that meditation may improve your heart's recovery from stress as demonstrated by improved Heart Rate Variability (HRV). First it is important to understand how stress affects the heart and then you can use that information to enhance your mental and physical health.
How Does Stress Affect Your Heart
Chances are you heard that stress is bad for your health. In fact, extreme stress can lead to a dangerous condition known as "Broken Heart Syndrome" (also known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy). The Mayo clinic describes Broken Heart Syndrome as a temporary disruption of healthy blood flow to the heart that in many ways feels like a heart attack. Common triggers include death of a loved one, extreme stress, trauma, and illness. Some speculate that Broken Heart Syndrome may have been a contributing factor in Debbie Reynolds' 2016 death following the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher.
Broken Heart Syndrome is rare, most of the time stress causes more gradual damage to the heart and the body. However, the existence of this condition demonstrates the profound influence stress has on the heart.
If you previously read about Heart Rate Variability (HRV), then you probably realize the heart doesn't beat in a steady evenly-paced pattern like a metronome. There is a constant balancing act between the the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is part of our "fight or flight" response that kicks in during stressful situations.
Immediately, the heart rate spikes in reaction to exertion or stress-provoking thoughts. Prolonged stress decreases HRV. However, taking care of oneself, maintaining a high level of fitness, and stress management techniques all help improve HRV. Meditation is one technique that may help improve HRV in both the short term and long-term. The end goal is not just to increase HRV, but it is to help the body better recover from stress related damages.
How Meditation May Help Boost Your HRV
Breath temporarily alters HRV but until recently the longer term effect of meditation on HRV wasn't well-studied.
A VU University Amsterdam study compared the results from a vigorous exercise program, a mindfulness meditation practice, and a heart rate variability biofeedback practice. The researchers found that members of each group reported "reduced stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and improved psychological well-being and sleep quality." After completing the five-week study, researchers concluded all three methods appear to work equally well as stress management management. The study didn't include a mixture of regular exercise and meditation or biofeedback.
The researchers approached the study with an expectation that all three activities are beneficial. Due to lack of prior research they were not sure which would prove most effective.
"However, one could speculate that MM (mindfulness meditation) and HRV-BF (HRV guided biofeedback) may be more similar to each other in terms of outcomes than to PA (vigorous physical activity), because both techniques use the focusing of attention and a calm breathing pattern in their exercises." - Researchers VU University Amsterdam study.
A Yale University School of Medicine study indicated that smokers who participate in a mindfulness meditation practice ended up smoking fewer cigarettes and their HRV improved. Researchers tracked baseline HRV as well as used HRV for biofeedback during meditation. Of course, it may be a chicken or egg scenario. It isn't known whether the HRV improved due to smoking less or due to meditation. However the study indicated that the mindfulness practice may have helped.
Tips To Get Started
- You don't need extensive meditation training to benefit. The Yale study found little difference between participants who received extensive meditation training and those who simply followed an guided meditation.
- You don't need to spend a lot of time. The meditation groups from the University Amsterdam study built up to 20 minutes a day, they started with 10 minutes a day.
- Various apps and audio programs make it easy to get started even if you haven't learned sophisticated breathing and meditation techniques. If you have a preferred form of meditation, that is always an option.
Techniques like yoga, deep breathing exercises, and meditation can mitigate the consequences of stress. These techniques may also help you recover from a vigorous fitness routine.
Sources & Resources
"Physical Activity, Mindfulness Meditation, Or Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback For Stress Reduction: A Randomized Controlled Trial" by Judith Esi van der Zwan, Wieke de Vente, Anja C. Huizink, Susan M. Bögels, and Esther I. de Bruin froom Applied Psychophysiol Biofeedback.
"Meditation-induced Changes In High-frequency Heart Rate Variability Predict Smoking Outcomes" by Daniel J. Libby, Patrick D. Worhunsky, Corey E. Pilver and Judson A. Brewer from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.