Morning Mental Worry and HRV

When you wake up in the morning do you wonder if your brain being engaged right away in the details of the upcoming day is actually causing you physiological stress? Is waking up worrying having an impact on your nervous system?


My Question

I wanted to see if how mentally calm (or not) I was in the morning was correlated with my Heart Rate Variability (HRV). How active was my brain when I had high HRV, or low? Was it ok to tick off my do list as I got up in the morning, or should I give myself a break and ease into the day?

What I Did

I measured my HRV each morning after waking using a Polar H7 Heart Rate belt connected to an app on my iPhone while simultaneously measuring my brain activity using an EEG device called Muse. The HRV would measure how close to fight or flight my nervous system was in while Muse measured my focus on breathing rather than on the worries of the day ahead.

How I Did It

I had my kit laid out the evening prior so on waking I would walk upstairs, take my toilet and sit in a chair in the Quant Cave to take the readings. I tried to keep distraction to a minimum. It was the same chair at the same time each morning. I took 16 readings over the course of as many days. The HRV app gave me an rMSSD reading, and the Muse app gave me a “% Calm” reading. I measured for five minutes and recorded the results in a Google Spreadsheet. After I had enough readings I used the Google Spreadsheet to create a graph of the results and calculate Pearson correlation.

What I Learned

My mental activity strongly correlates with HRV (r = .54). That means that higher my Muse “% Calm” score was the higher my rMSSD. It appeared that if I woke up and remained mentally relaxed my physiology seemed to be similarly relaxed.


Practical Application

I have a new piece of information about how I might be able to maximize my energy curve through the day. On waking allowing myself to simply go through my morning process without immediately running through my to do lists may result in a higher state of relaxation and physiological preparedness at the start of the day. If the idea of a hitting the slopes can ensure I start at a high level before I start the ride downward.

How You Can Do This Yourself

The kit you will need:

Unfortunately the Muse headset is expensive. Once you have acquired this kit and familiarized yourself, you can follow a procedure similar to the one I have described.

Short of repeating this experiment yourself you can give yourself a break in the morning and hold off on your to do list until you’ve had a chance to settle in for the day.

Hitting the Slopes

Have you ever felt that your willpower drop over the course of the day? It is true that Heart Rate Variability (HRV) has its own circadian rhythm. Here is two weeks worth of my HRV averages taken at four different times of the day:


The slope of the line connecting the four readings is the natural shape of energy that I have during the day. To increase willpower stamina and improve performance in my negotiations I want to see if there are ways to flatten the slope of that line without losing the high readings early in the day.

To understand which variables may extend the energy I have for negotiations I found a service called Whatify that helps set up and randomize conditions for testing. Now I can A/B test elements that may affect the slope of the day.

First I have to reduce Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to a single daily number and then test variables across that number. This one number is the slope of the readings. I derive that by making the X axis the hour of the day and the Y axis the rMSSD read at that time. I then use the SLOPE function in excel to derive the number.

The first variable I am going to test is exercise. Does 30 minutes of morning cardio change the slope of the line? Stay tuned and we find out using Whatify.

HRV Reactions to Presentations @ TEDx


My wife and I attended TEDx Mile High – “Ideas Unbridled” in Denver yesterday. I measured my heart rate variability (HRV) during each speech and on the conclusion of each rated it on how much I thought I enjoyed it. I wanted to compare my mental rating of the speeches and my physiological reaction to the same. Would the reactions match? Or was my physiology detached from the proceedings and my consumption of the speech was only a mental exercise?

I listened to twelve speeches over the course of the afternoon. The general arc was that the first four speakers I did not connect with, the fifth was a very inspiring speech, the next few were interesting, the last four were really good with the final one being absolutely great. So if I were to draw out my enjoyment curve by hand, it would look something like this:


My wife and I discussed the speeches as we walked home. I remember telling her I liked the middle spike speaker (Eric Kornacki) and the final speaker (Teju Ravilochan). I also mentioned that I liked some of the other speakers but I referred to them by topic rather than by name. I used descriptors “the Polar Vortex guy” or “the Twitter guy” and “the Visual Mantra Woman.” That was my subjective memory at work.

I had rated each speaker immediately after their speech on a scale of 1 to 10, therefore I had data recording my immediate reaction to each speech. Here is that curve:


During the actual experience of the speeches I had enjoyed remarks by Jesse Zhang and Chris Hansen nearly as much as Eric and Teju’s speeches, but because they sat in proximity to each other and Teju I could not recall them as well.

Finally, I pulled the data on my HRV, scaled it so I could lay it side by side with my mental assessment and you see that graph here:


My heart rate variability tracked closely with my mental assessment of each speech. The Pearson correlation between the two measurement arrays is .84, meaning my mental assessment of enjoyment had a very strong relationship with my physiological reaction to the speeches. It appears my enjoyment of the lineup of speakers was gradually increasing although my mental assessment was more extreme at the moment.

So the physiology and the mental assessment track together. When I am delighted, entertained and viewing material meant to be engaging my HRV reaction can be a proxy for how much I enjoyed and connected with what I was seeing.

As I find note taking boring, I see a few potential techniques to develop here. Perhaps when interviewing candidates for a role I no longer need to take notes, but can simply compare HRV readings after the discussions. Or I can rent myself out as a speech meter and simply sit in rehearsal presentations and upload the HRV data afterward. When people ask “What did you think?” I can say “I don’t know, look at the data and you tell me!”

Live from the Quant Cave – HRV and Brainwaves

My wife and I bought a house and we took keys on Friday. As we did the inevitable partitioning of who got what closet, bathroom and kitchen bar stool I found the former owner’s Man Cave had been repurposed into the place we watch TV in the evenings. I didn’t mind as I am not a Man Cave guy. It sounds like a place where you are allowed to stink and let hair accumulate in the drains. Not my thing. So I appropriated a small room in the converted attic and made it my Quant Cave. It is all plugs, wires, devices and KNOWLEDGE! No TV’s, guns, booze or dart boards. And no drains, so no hair clogs.


When I was at the Denver Quantified Self Meetup I had a chance to meet Tess who very helpfully had an extra Muse EEG headset that she let me purchase. I had seen a demo of the technology on two occasions and really liked what I had seen. My experience with the other EEG outfit Neurosky had been poor. The headsets (I tried two) were always dropping signal and I got so frustrated that I threw them in the special drawer where I put my Tinke, Google Glass and other wearables that either didn’t work or were no longer relevant. That’s a pretty expensive drawer.

For the last two weeks I have been playing with the Muse headset. I like the physical product. One button push to turn on and you wear it on like a pair of glasses with a metal strip against your forehead. It is comfortable and it connects well. I have not had it fail to pair yet.

The only way you can use it with the stock iOS app is to do meditation sessions where you are giving a “% calm” score and then a pretty flat gamification model that awards you “birds.” So you collect birds and can count breaths for 3 to 45 minutes. Your brain activity is displayed as a wave but there is no hard data and does not look like I can export anything yet.

My interest is the relation between my thinking and heart rate variability (HRV). For instance, if I am thoughtful and running through my to-do list in my head does that trigger an escalation in the “get moving” response and lower my HRV? If I am conducting a negotiation and my physiology is relaxed and my brain engaged, does the device measure an increase in my brain activity increase? Or for that matter, if I am in Vapor Lock does my brain activity drop?

In a pre-trial of the ideas here I did some HRV readings while doing the Muse meditation and found no correlation (R=.036) between low brain activity (“calm”) and high HRV (also “calm”). It looked like I could have an active brain and my HRV be quite variable and vice verse. Stage set for a future study if I can work my way past bird counting and the pre-packaged basic Muse product  presentation. To the Quant Cave!

And The Winner Is..

Vapor Lock by a wide margin. A lot of interesting contributions to include:

  • cranial crash
  • Brain Choke
  • Lizard State
  • hyperlock
  • Blankout
  • Neural Network Denial-of-Service Attack

The last one is great. However, I think the technically correct term would be “Parasympathetic Nervous System Allowing Denial-of-Service Acceleration!”

Thanks all for your votes. We’ve crowdsourced a term!

Reader Poll: Name that Freak Out State

I have prepared my speech for the Quantified Self 2015 Conference and have one last finishing touch to do and I thought I would reach out for your help. The speech is about stress states while interacting with colleagues. I have used many words in this blog to describe this stress state before to include terms like Upset and Parasympathetic Flatline. But these terms don’t capture those electrifying moments where things just freeze.


What I am trying to describe is more specific in the social environment and the term needs a little punch. It is that state brought on by any trigger that puts your body in the Fight/Flight mode at that exact moment you actually need your brain. It is the moment when all your blood moves to the back brain, hands and feet getting you ready to physically respond to danger. And you are sitting in a conference room. It is freezing up when you talk to the boss. Going blank when you get on stage to speak to a group. Those terrifying moments when you can’t recall simple facts you know you have in your memory.

I would like to get your input on a good term that captures this state in a vibrant way. The term the group likes most I will use my in QS15 speech and will start using to describe this state hereafter. Let’s crowdsource a term and see if it sticks. To the poll:

Fort-Six Meditations

I was pulling data yesterday preparing my speech for the Quantified Self Conference & Expo. I have been collecting heart rate variability (HRV) readings since October during conversations with work colleagues. My hypothesis was that I could train myself to be like a conversational ninja and outwit people using my physiology.


I had to ensure I could bring myself to a relaxed state by practicing sitting in a meditative state each morning for five minutes. l talk about the value of this in my tutorial post “By Yourself – Basic Training.”  I wanted to train myself to get to calm in five minutes or less.

For these sessions, I use Heartmath emWave pro because it has a very clear interface. It uses an ear clip that ties to software on my laptop and this is the dashboard I see during the session:


I can see my HRV wave on the top part of the screen and get a score on how I am doing on the bottom. I don’t recommend the emWave pro based on its high price. You can use a phone-based app for the same five-minute session. But I have one so I use it.

In prepping the speech, I pulled the data on 46 meditative sessions to see if I was getting fight/flight readings when I was purposely downshifting my physiology. These sessions were spread out over multiple months and consisted of 17,872 heart beats. I analyzed these beats looking for fight/flight incidents using a technique I outline in my HRV Tutorial. The number of fight/flight incidents?


That’s right, zero. Over all of those sessions, I did not have a single incident of extended fight/flight during those sessions. So I had in my Basic Training learned how to bring myself to a relaxed and refreshed state very consistently.

I’ll be talking how I wove this training into my conversational experiences as part of my speech for the conference. I’ll also be rehearsing this speech this Wednesday at the first Denver Quantified Self Meetup. If you are in the area stop on by.

Facing the Big Boss

Have you every had to give a briefing to the Big Boss, the Boss above the person you report to? And in that have you ever gotten this look?

Uhappy Big Boss

And when you got that look your brain just froze? You could not think of what to say? The start point for my work in Quantified Self was to try and understand that “freeze” phenomenon and how to train myself to experience it less. I negotiate a lot for business and my hypothesis was that control of physiological reactions in meetings could make me a more effective negotiator.

I had an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing this week as I briefed not one, but SIX Big Bosses. Nine people total were in the room. One Boss had showed up uninvited because he opposed the concepts being discussed. And to make matters even more fun, I was told I was the primary presenter thirty minutes before the meeting. After hearing that I thought, “This will be a great HRV reading.”

The meeting was on a controversial topic and several of the Big Bosses did not agree on how to resolve it. I had been asked a few weeks earlier to help create a resolution. We were scheduled for an hour. There were two points in meeting I remember feeling the “brain freeze” moment and had to push on by looking at the slide and restarting my mental engine. Because of the late notice that I was the presenter I could not use my standard practice of memorizing the material prior to a high intensity presentation. Here is my reading for the session:


This reading recalls the shape of the meeting very well. At the start each of Big Bosses tried to steer the meeting toward a resolution they thought was best. Big Bosses can’t help it, they get paid to steer. The Biggest Boss kept coming back to “let’s let him go through the material.” The dark blue from interval 426 to 2996 was me trying to get a word in edgewise.

In the middle of the meeting I had made my points and the Big Bosses began debating the merits of the resolution. As the spotlight moved from me I did deep breathing, listened and took notes. My memory of that period was that my brain was turned back on and I could feel a lighter feeling in my chest and head. The reading shows that I dropped from Fight/Flight as indicated by the white spaces from interval 2996 to around 6000.

Then the Biggest Boss said something to the effect that the resolution I had presented was incomplete. You can see around interval 6000 I go back into Fight/Flight as I was trying to explain how the missing part he was concerned with actually was completed. This lasted for a good period because other Big Bosses saw this as an opportunity to re-introduce their specific personal points and we were off and running. It was in this period I recall a specific “freeze” moment regarding a question on a detail that I resolved by having the group look at a different slide.

Finally I was able to get the Big Bosses to turn to the last slide where there was a collective “Oh, here it is” and you can see around interval 8900 my physiology begins to relax. The part of the resolution they were looking for was there. To my recollection the room relaxed as well. Some jokes where shared and people began to prepare to summarize and end the meeting.

During this hour long meeting I was in Fight/Flight 46% of the time, a full 27 minutes. I can’t reveal any details of the meeting, but I can believe that quality of my answers was more reactive and less thought out during those two periods. My personal variability training did make an important contribution as I was able to break up the 27 minutes into two periods that each had a specific topic I was “fighting” to make. In the first period I was concentrating on getting my main points across. Once done I was able to use my breathing and get myself to a relaxed state where I had ticked the box of “points made.” When the second period started I was only “fighting” to show the one completion point. I believe that if I had not allowed myself a completion state in the middle I would not have been as focussed on a single point which I was able to make in the end.

To see how much the environment like a meeting can change very rapidly, I had the opportunity to measure a meeting immediately after the meeting recorded above. As in I walked from the conference room for that meeting to the office for the meeting in a period of five minutes. I already had the kit ready so I just hit “record” for the second meeting.

In this second meeting I was brainstorming with a colleague on how to handle a problem that would play out over several months. There was no urgency, the colleague and I get on well and we were coming up with good ideas. Here is the reading:


That means I came from a pretty intense Big Boss meeting where there was a lot of Fight/Flight, did a BreatheSync session for two minutes and entered the second meeting. In this one there was very little Fight/Flight at all and it was a very productive 35 minutes.

Breathing tools, understanding how the physiology reacts when meeting with the Big Bosses and finding the balance between Fight/Flight and relaxation can improve both how you prepare, and how you ramp yourself down when in an intense situation. And these same tools allow a fast transition to a new environment where you can be productive as appropriate for the situation.

I will be presenting more about how I use heart rate variability at the Quantifed Self Conference and Expo in San Francisco June 18 – 20. I look forward to it and I look forward to meeting many of you there.

Feedback While Training – Stayfit & Breathe Sync

When I started looking at Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool to train myself I was drawing on my experience using heart rate monitors for physical training. When I went for a run I would see my heart rate in real time and adjust my exertion accordingly. I found this a powerful way to both increase my fitness and extend my training by not overdoing it.

Most of the apps today either lack context on the data they gather or give you a passive report on a past period of time. For example, the Jawbone UP tells you your steps but it is up to you to index that against other measures to see if you are improving your fitness. Multiple HRV apps will give you a coherence or stress reading after a session is complete. Two apps I am using now structure the feedback in ways that make the experience more interactive and provide good enough context for a user to take action in real time.

Stayfit by Marco Altini. I have just started using this app and really like it. It does not use HRV, but it creates very nice context by indexing resting heart rate against daily exertion. A quick measure of resting heart rate in the morning is very easy to do, then watching your exertion the rest of the day helps you work on fitness. The interface is very clean:


I find that I look at it often during the day to watch my kilocalories expended and make adjustments to my schedule and activities to increase exertion for the day. It is only available on iOS is its only drawback.

Breathe Sync by Michael Townsend Williams. I have written about this app in an earlier post and still have it as one of my go to apps. The reason is that its primary use case is to bring you back to a coherent and relaxed state very simply and quickly. It does give a measurment but that is a secondary part of the experience. The camera on your phone picks up your heart beats and then shows with a simple blue and white ring visual how your heart rate is slowing or speeding up as you see here:


Over the course of the session the ring visual will allow you to match your breath with the increase and decrease of the interval between heart beats. Very powerful and effective. I use it when I feel amped up or just prior to a meeting to get into a balanced place.

The context of indexing one measure against another in Stayfit and the very active intervention quality in Breathe Sync put them both on my daily use list. Ultimately I want to train myself to use awareness and respiration to set myself “in the zone” when it comes time to negotiate, interview and brainstorm in a professional setting. These two apps are great tools as I work on getting there.

Superpower Series: The Working Session

You can use measurements of your heart rate variability (HRV) to improve how effectively you concentrate when you work. When engaged in thoughtful work on your own and your prefrontal cortex is fully engaged your heart rate variability will be high enough that you will not show sustained stress. My experience applying techniques that kept me engaged yielded more output and I felt more relaxed when the session was over.

I had explored work session hygiene techniques in past work  that I called returning to poise. In those sessions I had discovered that I was more engaged and less stressed when:

  • I set aside a fixed period of time from 25 to 30 minutes,
  •  there was only one topic I focussed on for that period,
  • when I was distracted I used steady breathing to bring my attention back to my task,
  • the task at hand was the “right one” and no thoughts of being elsewhere intruded.

Here are four working sessions and how the measurements corresponded with how effectively I used the hygiene techniques. In all sessions I was working in the same office at roughly the same time of day. The topic was the same in all sessions, and I was working alone in the office on my computer doing planning for organizational alignment.

In the first session, I worked without using any of the hygiene factors. I simply put on the heart rate belt and worked. This is the graph of the session:


You can see periodic stress points, where my sympathetic nervous system was firing and it is probable that my prefrontal cortex was not in full gear. I was not doing my best thinking. I logged that I was not sure there was not more important work I should have been doing. This distracted me, and I did not see good results.

Contrast this to a second session of similar length where the topic was important, I had the time set aside and was focussed. You can see the graph here:


Far fewer periods where I was in fight/flight mode. It appears that my belief in the importance of the task reduced the amount of stress. In a 40 minute session again my concentration was high based on the belief I was working on the most important task possible and that I was in the “right place at the right time.”


You can see that even for a longer session the number of fight/flight events were singular and fewer in number. The other hygiene techniques all were in place. The reason for the 40 minutes session was that I engaged enough that I blew right through the time limit.

Finally, I was able to have all the hygiene factors in place for a shorter session and in that I had no fight/flight incidents at all. Here is the graph:


So when working alone it is possible to improve your concentration by developing techniques to keep yourself focussed. When so focussed, your HRV will reflect that you are physiologically in an state of complete engagement. And you will see much improved work output.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,822 other followers