Living with PTSD: Tracking My HRV

I started tracking my HRV a few weeks ago, and it’s turned out to be a helpful tool. There isn’t really a target range that I could justifiably set for myself (especially since I’m not a medical professional), but I learned that the app I’m using has an average user number of 59 or so, and I was pretty sure that the research I’d listened to indicated mine would be lower.

It was.

For the first few weeks I was in the high 30s and low 40s most of the time. The app I use has a Morning Readiness reading that I do when I wake up, and it measures my HRV right after I finish sleep and there hasn’t been external stressors yet. I adopted and attitude of observing and learning, and watched my initial numbers steadily drop, and the readout pretty consistently tell me that I might need less stress, might need to do breathing exercises or otherwise manage my body’s sympathetic response. I noticed how I was feeling, noticed what the number was each day, and paid attention to whether I thought the two matched. Turns out, they often do.

This week my numbers have been in the 50s, which freaked out my app at first because that is suddenly much higher than normal. The readout cautioned me that I might be recovering and to maybe take it easy. I was! I’ve gotten consistently higher numbers this week, and have the energy and feel-good to match.

I don’t think tracking HRV is necessary, but I do think that having a way to check in with myself at a level that is available to me through technology is helpful, especially as I practice observing how I feel and responding by giving my body what it needs.

Data Collection on Myself

I wear a Fitbit to track my sleep and heart rate. I pay a little attention to steps and exercise, but gone is my compulsive goal-meeting to satisfy the little vibrating band on my arm. I was thinking about giving it up for a bit in an effort to listen to my body rather than a wearable tech device, and I still might, but I just learned about Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and how it can serve as an indicator of symptoms for people who experience PTSD. Per the people at Harvard:

HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response… HRV is an interesting and noninvasive way to identify these ANS imbalances. If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. Read the full article here

This feels like such good news to me. It doesn’t change the importance of listening to my body, it gives me another way to listen! After a lot of research last night and this morning I ordered a heart rate monitor that can read HRV so that I can try this out. Not only can this help me understand what I’m experiencing, I can take action on that information. There are a variety of ways to improve HRV, even in the short term, for people who experience PTSD, including yoga, meditation, marathon running (not likely for me, but glad to know it’s an option!), focused breathing and other techniques that engaged the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve been listening to The Body Keeps The Score, and as technical as it sometimes is and as difficult as it can be to listen to, the information on managing PTSD symptoms has been really helpful to me, and I’m looking forward to trying out HRV monitoring for myself.