HRV and Willpower, Slow Breathing for Self-Control, Huberman Series on Mental Health
🤸♀️ Stretch 50
Most of us are unaware of the full potential of our nervous system.
It’s like we’re driving a race car on rough terrain with the wrong fuel and poor maintenance.
It’s not entirely our fault. (No one ever gave us a manual!)
Luckily, it’s never too late for driving lessons. In this Stretch, we’ll explore how to shift gears, how to refuel and how to peek under the hood to marvel at the engine’s power and complexity.
My partner is a somatic coach-in-training and is running a series of 30-minutes sessions to explore the ‘bodymind’ (aka take your supercar for a spin) through somatic exercises and journaling. I’m biased but I think she’s pretty great at it. 🥰 You can check it out here. If you have the means, please pay the fee. If you don’t, you can grab one of the limited free spaces using this code: FREECODE
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
The link between HRV and willpower. This’ll help you reframe exercise as a tool to restore, not drain, your willpower.
Breathe your way to self-control. Yet another benefit of slow, deep breathing.
Huberman ft. Conti series on mental health. How to understand, assess and improve your mental health.
🫀THE LINK BETWEEN HRV AND WILLPOWER INSTINCT
A major takeaway from Chapter 2 of Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Instinct” (check out chapter 1 here):
Willpower is a matter of physiology—not just psychology.
In other words:
There’s an inseparable connection between the body and the mind. Yes, mindset and mental resilience are important. But you also need to get your body on board.
Willpower is a temporary state of both mind and body that gives you the strength and calm to override your impulses.
In her book, McGonigal outlines two distinct nervous system responses:
The 🥷 instinctive “fight and flight” versus the 👩🏫 measured “pause-and-plan.”
Each state triggers very different reactions in the brain and body, from variations in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, to muscle contraction and other automatic functions.
When faced with a willpower challenge, ideally, you want your body to activate the “pause-and-plan” response. This means having the self-awareness to recognize you’re facing a willpower challenge, and having the strength and calm to control your impulses.
Research shows that the single best physiological measurement of the pause-and-plan response is something called heart rate variability, or HRV.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) refers to the variation in time between each heartbeat. It is considered a key indicator of autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, particularly the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches.
Generally, the more relaxed and free from stress you are, the more variability in the time between each of your heartbeats. Higher HRV is generally associated with better health, resilience, and adaptability to stress.
An example of an electrocardiogram, or recording of the heart’s electrical activity, to show HRV. Each spike is a heartbeat and the time intervals are shown in seconds.
I asked ChatGPT for an analogy to help visualize this concept:
HRV in simple terms: Imagine your heart as a drummer in a band. Instead of keeping a constant beat like a metronome, a good drummer varies the beats just a little – some fast, some slow – to make the music feel more lively. HRV is like measuring those tiny variations in the beats. If the drummer only played a rigid, unchanging beat, the music might not feel as alive or vibrant.
Why is higher HRV better?: Using our band analogy, if our drummer can vary the beats more (higher HRV), it means he's more adaptable and can respond better to changes in the song or the band's rhythm. Similarly, a heart with higher HRV means it can adjust to changes quickly, whether those are emotional stresses, physical challenges, or other demands. It's a sign that the body's control system (specifically, the autonomic nervous system) is flexible and in good shape. On the other hand, if the drummer has a very rigid beat pattern (low HRV), it could mean he's not as adaptable, which might not be good for the band. Similarly, a low HRV can be a sign that our body might not be handling stress or challenges as well as it could.
So, according to research described in the book, HRV is a physiological measure of someone’s capacity for self-control.
That begs the question: how can you improve your HRV?
Many factors have an influence:
What you eat (plant-based, unprocessed foods over junk food)
Where you live (air quality)
Your mental state—including anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness, stress
Now, you might not have control over all of these things, and even if you do, they’re not easily fixed.
BUT there is something you do have control over… Inexpensive and immediately effective…
Movement is quite literally a wonder drug. There are the immediate, short-term benefits. Reducing cravings, endorphins, etc etc. We all know and believe this by now, I hope!
But the long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive.
Exercise enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. Physical exercise makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect. (Pssst. Read my notes on chapter 1 about the role of the prefrontal cortex in willpower.)
I like in the book how McGonigal addresses these two common questions:
“What kind of exercise is best?”
The body and brain don’t seem to discriminate, so whatever you are willing to do is the perfect place to start. Gardening, walking, dancing, yoga, team sports, swimming, playing with your kids or pets—even enthusiastic housecleaning and window-shopping qualify as exercise.
Anything above and beyond the typical sedentary lifestyle will improve your willpower reserve.
“How much exercise do I need to do?”
However much you are willing/able to do. There’s no point in setting goals you won’t be able to keep.
A 2010 analysis of ten different studies found that the biggest mood-boosting, stress-busting effects came from five-minute doses of exercise, not hour-long sessions. There’s no shame—and a lot of potential good—in committing to just a five-minute walk around the block.
McGonigal was so inspired by the research on the benefits of movement that she wrote an entire book about it: The Joy of Movement.
I just love learning stuff like this because it makes it so much easier to prioritize exercise—even when (especially when!) I’m busy or stressed.
»»» Next week: takeaways from Chapter 3 of the book. We’ll set ourselves small, willpower challenges to strengthen our brain’s willpower circuits.
💨 BREATHE YOUR WAY TO SELF-CONTROL
I might be in a bit of an echo chamber but I feel like everything I’m reading and learning leads back to… BREATHWUUUURK.
And no special breathing techniques or fancy apps or Wim Hof retreats.
Nope. Just plain simple… slow breathing.
There are lots of benefits to slow breathing, but in the context of our willpower:
Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.
So try this:
First, count how many breaths you normally take in one minute. Set a timer, breathe normally and count the number of breath cycles (1 inhale + 1 exhale.)
Then, try to slow your breathing down to 4-6 breath cycles per minute. That’ll be a lot slower than you normally breathe, but doable with a little bit of practice and patience.
For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely (pursing your lips and imagining that you are exhaling through a straw in your mouth can help).
If you don’t quite get down to 4-6 breaths a minute, don’t worry. Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute.
You’ll notice that a few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.
I’ve been doing a daily 10-15 minute deep, slow, breathing exercise every single morning for a while now. Knowing this also improves HRV and willpower just makes me more convinced to make it my #1 priority.
🏃♀️ HUBERMAN FT. CONTI SERIES ON MENTAL HEALTH
Huberman and psychiatrist Paul Conti have teamed together on a four-part episode series on mental health, which Huberman has called ‘his most important work to date.'
I’ve written before about how I want to be intentional about my mental health. I know there are deeply ingrained patterns and behaviours driving my decisions and actions. And if left unexplored, these will determine the course of my days, my months, my years and ultimately, my life—for better or worse. :)
And this isn’t about depression or mental illness. This is about simple, basic mental health. About learning how to be a functioning, resilient, content, emotionally balanced person.
Because, as Conti says in the opening quote, this can be learned. There are protocols and techniques, just like there are with physical health.
It’s quite nuts when you think about it—how we don’t learn any of this in school. Zero psychology, zero time spent on understanding and managing our thoughts and emotions, or even a basic awareness of the cognitive constructs and biases common to the human experience.
We’re just kind of left to figure it out on our own.
That’s why it’s so amazing that there’s content like this freely available on YouTube.
So far, two of the four episodes are out: