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Burnout: Why Heart Rate Variability Matters

Heart Rate Variability, what is it and why is it important? Our bodies regularly try to tell us what’s happening, giving us warning signs telling us it’s time to change. Heart Rate Variability is one way of your body giving you such a sign!

We’ll go into more depth later but first a quick recap. In the last couple of months I’ve talked about returning to work, preventing burnout and creating resilience. And, I’ve also talked about the questions to ask yourself if the thought of returning to work doesn’t inspire you.

I mentioned also how thoughts and feelings can impact on how we respond to a situation. What are you thinking? How are those thoughts making you feel? What does that look like, do you have a racing heart, is your mouth dry or do you feel permanently tired and unmotivated to do anything?

Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability

One of the burgeoning areas of research right now is the importance of something called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).  

As a former nurse, I appreciate just how much heart health is a reflection of general health. And, something as simple as our heart rate has long been an indicator of current health.

When assessing patients, cardiologists will usually consider a range of factors related to heart rate.

So, for example a very slow heart rate could be due to a metabolic problem such as hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone levels) or actually because you’re very fit.

Conversely, a very rapid heart rate could be due to a heart related condition such as high blood pressure or simply because you’ve just been exercising.

You get the picture! With each heart beat our heart rate is constantly changing to adapt to a variety of physical and emotional stressors.  

What is Heart Rate Variability and Why is it Important?

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measurement of the time between consecutive heartbeats and the variation in that time. So, many things impact on HRV including but not limited to:

  • Stressors (negative/positive and internal/external)
  • Hormonal reactions
  • Physical activity, exercise and recovery from it
  • Cognitive processes.

Your heart rate and heart rate variability generally have an inverse relationship.

That means when you’re relaxing or recovering and your heart beat is slower or slowing, your HRV increases.

It figures then that if your HRV is generally high it’s more likely that you’re in a good place with your health. Essentially you’re likely to be living a healthy lifestyle with established habits and routines that include regular exercise, eating a varied healthy diet and ensuring that you have a good sleep routine in place.

When stress (from either positive or negative stressors) occurs, your heart rate starts to elevate and your HRV decreases.

Each small step, choice or decision you make every day has the potential to impact your emotional and physical health positively or negatively. A low HRV can be an indicator of burnout as a result of long term exposure to negative stressors i.e. unresolved workplace stress. And, when you’re in the downward spiral of burnout, you’ll feel the impacts.This can be on the quality of your sleep, or the nutritional choices that you make and the way that you feel emotionally and physically.

That’s why as a burnout coach, I start each Burnout Recovery Coaching Programme with a Lifestyle assessment.

What’s a Lifestyle Assessment?

A key part of a lifestyle assessment with clients who are working with me to combat and heal from burnout, is the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment. Your HRV is measured over a specific period of time, and enables you to get comprehensive insights into your well-being. It’s a physiological snapshot of your everyday life right now. Importantly it looks at how work, leisure and sleep (or lack thereof) are impacting you.

It helps you to visualise your ‘baseline’, determining where your key stressors are and whether you’re able to ‘recharge and recover’ on a regular basis. The likelihood is that in burnout you aren’t getting a balance of work, rest and recovery so the assessment is an important aspect in helping you to create your personal recovery strategies.

The best way I can demonstrate how a Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment looks is to show you an example:

Can you see the difference between each day? A busy work day is showing a lot of stress with minimal time for recovery. Whilst in ‘Business as Usual’ there’s a good balance of stress and recovery time.

It isn’t possible to tell the difference between negative or positive stress from the measurement. But, keeping a journal during your assessment time helps to identify whether it’s one or the other.

My personal experience and that of my clients is that it’s a really clear visualisation, often creating a cue to change long held habits, changing their behaviour and reaping the reward of breaking free from burnout.

If you would like to talk more about having a Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment or about my burnout coaching programme call or e-mail to arrange a personal discovery call.

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