December is ordinarily one of my favorite times of the year — what with my extended vacation, Christmas, family, decorations, and just all the joys the season brings. But this past one was different — I was stressed…about work, about relationships, about hosting Christmas, about…you-name-it. And try as I might to find my usual peace and inner joy, I just couldn’t do it.
Enter my Oura ring, which I had ordered several months prior in October, but due to its being publicized by a photo of Prince Harry wearing one, was severely backlogged. So my ring finally arrived in mid-December, and upon being charged and worn overnight, confirmed what I already knew: I was severely stressed and sleeping poorly.
Let me back up a moment and fill you on the ultra-coolness that is the Oura ring. This bit of biotech is primarily a sleep tracking device, or rather, it is a device that tracks a number of metrics while you sleep, crunches the data in the cloud and gives you what it terms a “readiness” rating. This rating is basically an overall assessment of your readiness for the day, i.e. your degree of go-ness, or no-go-ness as the case may be; whether you should seize the day or take an easier, more relaxed approach.
For example, on this day, my readiness was 87/100 (anything over 85 is ideal). So the app tells me, “Challenge yourself. Your readiness is off the charts! What can you do with all this potential?” Among the data it considered was that I had slept for eight hours and 16 minutes, my sleep score was 91/100 (it also breaks down the why behind that score, as well), my resting heart rate was in its typical range, I had met my previous day’s activity goals, and I went to bed close to Oura’s recommended bedtime based on its assessment of my circadian rhythm. I also hit the minimums for each phase of sleep (rare for me). It did, however, seem to feel that my sleep and activity levels were not quite in balance. Cool Stuff.
The Oura offers other sets of data beyond those listed above, among them Heart Rate Variability (HRV). This value is an accepted measure of stress. Essentially, the lower the number, the greater the stress. Several factors impact HRV, such as level of cardiac fitness. I am, er, how to say, a “cardio junkie,” so one could reasonably expect my HRV to be in the higher range for my demographic (age and gender). Except it wasn’t.
The way it works is this: most of us are familiar with average heart rate, i.e. the number of times the heart beats in a given time frame, typically one minute or beats per minute (bpm). But the heart doesn’t beat evenly like a metronome, i.e. there is variability in the timing of each beat — some beats are closer together while others are farther apart. Think of it as playing or practicing a musical score where an overall piece or section of a piece is performed at a certain tempo, such as 80 bpm. But within each score or section there are whole notes, quarter notes, eight notes, etc. Your average heart rate in bpm is equivalent to the piece’s tempo, while your variability might be a measure with a quarter note, an eight note, two sixteenth notes and a half note. Overall, there are four beats in this example measure, but the timing between each beat varies. Higher variability, i.e. a greater variety of notes of different durations, is, for the purpose of this discussion, the desired state.
As a general rule, the lower your heart rate, the more time there is for variance between each beat, thus the higher the variability. But stress, which triggers the sympathetic (fight or flight) aspect of the autonomic nervous system, drives down this variability. My resting heart rate is in the mid-low 40s, occasionally the 30s (yeah, me and Lance Armstrong, though that’s where the similarities end). Did I mention I was a cardio junkie? So with my resting heart rate (rhr), there is (should be) plenty of time for variability. Except that’s not what the Oura was reporting.
This led me down the path of trying to answer the question: “How can I increase my HRV?” Now, admittedly, that really wasn’t the exact question I should have been trying to answer, but it is an established fact that stress can and does impact executive functioning. Nevertheless, in the course of trying to answer *that* question, I learned not only about the specific psychophysiological effects that stress has on the body, but also tools and techniques that laypersons can use to both measure and affect the same.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series where I discuss more about what corporeal systems drive stress and the first tool I came upon that allowed me get a grip on those systems and bring them into greater balance.