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Heart Rate Variability and Willpower

Publication date: 01 June 2013

This week I've been reading "Maximum Willpower" by Kelly McGonigal (actually re-reading it - it's worth reading at least twice). It's a book about how to develop self-control - who doesn't need that? Specifically how to control the mind - emotions, stress, cravings, attention or focus, impulses to act or speak. The author describes Heart Rate Variability (one of the most powerful biofeedback parameters) as a very good index of will-power or self-control. How so?

The theme of chapter 2 of the book is the biology of will-power. McGonical makes the point very clearly: "self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology". In the brain the locus of self-control is the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) - an activated, well balanced PFC is the basis for making fully aware conscious choices, and for motivation or staying power. Stress, and more specifically the fight or flight response which involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, amongst other things deactivates the PFC. As the author says, the biology of stress and the biology of self-control are incompatible.

What makes Heart Rate Variability (HRV) such a good index of willpower, or reserve of willpower as McGonigal puts it? Here are some facts backed up by research:

  • HRV decreases under stress (i.e. with sympathetic nervous system activation)
  • HRV increases with relaxation (i.e. with parasympathetic nervous system activation)
  • People with higher baseline HRV are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification and managing stress.
  • People whose HRV increases when they are faced with a will-power challenge are more likely to succeed.
  • Conversely people whose HRV decreases are more likely to cave in to temptation.

McGonigal believes that HRV is the best measure of willpower (or the pause and plan response, to be more exact).

There are many factors that influence HRV, but the important thing is that it can be developed. Research shows meditation improves it, as does slow breathing. (At the same time, these techniques increase PFC activation.) HRV biofeedback, when combined with mindfulness meditation and breathing techniques, in my opinion offers the best route to increased HRV and self-control.

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