Monthly Archives: May 2015

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. Let’s name that freak out state.

Name that Freak Out State

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:

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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.

ConvoNinja

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:

Slide1

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?

bagel

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:

Slide1

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:

Slide2

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:

stayfit-app-pic

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:

breathesync-pic

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:

Slide1

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:

Slide2

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.”

Slide3

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:

Slide4

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.