Superpower Series: Variability Basic Training

Before you begin taking readings in work sessions and meetings you have to become familiar with the pattern and connection between your circumstances, Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and breath. Your breath rate signals to your nervous system whether your circumstance calls for an accelerated state, or a relaxed nervous state. Conducting repeated sessions will allow you to see the relationship.

Exercise: Using basic kit take a measurement each morning for five minutes. While doing so, breathe six times a minute. That means breath in five seconds and out for five seconds. You can start with a smaller period if you are uncomfortable  and need to practice. Even at smaller intervals make the breaths even and consistent. Afterward look at the intervals between heart beats to see how well your breath and HRV relate to each other.

If you are relaxed the measure of RR intervals will go up and down evenly with your breath. This means your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is applying the brake to put you in rest and digest state. Here is a graph of my RR intervals during a five minute session in a completely relaxed state:


I have had many sessions where despite regular breathing I could not enter a relaxed state. Here is a session where I was thoughtful about a variety of to do’s while trying to bring myself to a relaxed state. These Upsets were evident in the graph of my RR intervals:

You can see in the intervals have periods where there is not much variability. My thought process was accelerating my Sympathetic Nervous System even though I was sitting quietly breathing in a regular rhythm. In another session I was generally relaxed and in the zone then had a thought that interrupted my flow. I let the through go and returned to breathing and recaptured my variability. You can see the interruption and return in the red circle.


In another session on two occasions I had Upsets in the flow of the session and was able to recover twice. You can see these episodes in the red circles in this chart.


The exercise of breathing regularly and taking your HRV measurement for five minutes a day will give you a baseline for when your system is Upset by different thoughts, and when it is responding to your breath while relaxed.

If you want to learn more about developing a Superpower read about Giving a Speech.

One Big Reset

Not a lot of exciting news as I gather mounds of data for my next study. With a focus on the small increments within a working session or a meeting with another person I sometimes don’t report bigger wins in reducing actual Upsets.

Last night I had a belief that a good night of sleep was important and when the dog woke me up at 2.30am because she wanted some water I triggered an Upset. In this case I was irritated enough that getting back to sleep was a problem. In a quintessential Freakback being Upset about not sleeping made it hard to get back to sleep.

I pulled out my HeartmathPro and did a session to 500 points. Heartmath awards you points per second based on your coherence score, the higher earning more points. I do 500 points a day to keep myself reminded of what coherence feels like and I have been improving over time. Here is a graph of the time it has taken to earn 500 points in each of the last 46 sessions:

Slide1The trend line is down overall and you can see that some sessions take a long time, some are quite short. With practice I no longer need a breath pacer, I can breath along with the displayed RR interval curve and maintain high coherence.

Last night though I was irritated at the dog, and irritated I could not sleep, when I sat and did the breathing I had a record breaking session and finished 500 points in just over 10 minutes. This is the fastest time I have ever recorded. Here are the waveforms of the session as displayed by the Kubios software:


The top is the total session and the bottom the breakout of the first five minutes. That is a nearly perfect session. When I finished the irritation was completely gone. I set the device aside and fell asleep immediately.

That is a great ending and a victory for breath pacing and coherence. And puzzling in that I would have guessed that I would have taken a longer time to earn the points given I was irritated. Not so. My mind shifted to Poise almost immediately as seen on the waveforms and all trace of the irritation was gone.

As a sleep aid and way to reverse Upset emotions coherence is tough to beat.

Using Stress App While Getting Tooth Drilled At Dentist

That title does not lie. I wore a Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor paired with SweetwaterHRV’s SweetBeat Life to the dentist where I was to have a cavity filled. I measured the entire session and have pulled the data for the specific five minutes where the drill was going and that burning smell filled the room. To that measurement in a moment. 

I also visited my stockbroker today to review the state of affairs. I wore the same heart rate sensor and had SweetBeat Life reading my vitals. At one point in the discussion he asked me to make a long term decision that could effect the fortunes of my children and their children’s children. I have the data from that five minute discussion as well. To that in a moment. 

As a baseline I have uploaded five minutes of a coherent session that I did some time back. It is the most perfectly relaxed and coherent session I have experienced. The data was exported and put into Kubios HRV freeware. Here is what that report looks like:


You can see at the green arrow the waveform of my heart rate. It looks nearly like a perfect sine wave, smooth and relatively even. The blue arrow shows a nice distribution of heart frequencies which indicates good variability. And the orange arrow shows the Low Frequency to High Frequency ratio (LF/HF) of my system as 9.5. This is a smooth, relaxed state. 

For comparison I pulled five minutes of a difficult work session. I don’t know what was happening that day, I was just out of sorts while doing email and tweeting. Here are those readings:


You can see the waveform (green arrow) is much flatter, there is a much smaller distribution of frequencies (blue arrow) and LF/HF ratio (orange arrow) is 1.056. This is a stress state and the metrics are very clear that there is very little variability in the heart rate.

To our friend the stockbroker. Though I spent an hour in the appointment there was one five minute period where I was “on the spot” with respect to a decision. Here is the picture: 


The waveform is chaotic at points (green arrow), but there are clear sine waves for a portion of the period. The distribution of frequencies (blue arrow) is quite broad and the LF/HF ratio is 8.046. This is nearly the same ratio as in the relaxed state. So though I felt somewhat out of sorts at moments mostly because I never was any good at picking stocks, I was generally in a Poised state during that meeting. 

The Dentist came as quite a surprise. There were periods where I was very concerned that I would feel intense pain. Fortunately I have an excellent dentist and things turned out to be quick and painless. The data shows I was not nearly as upset on a physiological level as I thought I would be: 


To remind you, this five minutes was when the drill was going. The waveform (green arrow) is a more jagged than a relaxed waveform, but there is some variability. See the difficult session above to see a waveform with little variability. The frequency distribution (blue arrow) was much broader than I would have expected. And the LF/HF ratio was 4.350, not as low as the difficult session at all. In fact, the LF power which indicates a mixture of the Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight/Flight) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest/Digest) was equal at the dentist and the stockbroker. 

So the conclusion here could be that having a bad day doing email is far worse than visiting the stockbroker or the dentist.  If you are banging away at email , feeling out of sorts and find yourself in San Francisco, head over to Dr. Shek and have him the get the drill out! 

Improvement Results In Upset Recovery

I am pleased to be presenting the results of this study at the QuantifiedSelf Meetup in San Francisco on 28 July.  As I have been crunching the numbers I thought I would give a sneak peek at the summary results. 

Starting on 24 June and I sat for 71 sessions using the Heartmath Pro and a digitial recorder. I would do work on a computer and record verbally what I was thinking when the Heartmath indicated I was dropping out of cardiac coherence (Upset). I was measuring interruptions to coherency which roughly correspond to being distracted or Upset while working.

As the sessions progressed I developed recovery techniques to try and move back to coherence (Poise) as quickly as possible. I wanted to see if I could reduce the amount of time I was Upset during the sessions. The data shows that my techniques did reduce the amount of time I spent Upset in each session over the course of the study:


What this graph means is that the % of time I spent Upset per session went from close to 35% at the baseline to 12% at completion. In time terms, that means in each 60 minutes of work I was able to add back 13 minutes and 48 seconds of productive time. When in Poise my thoughts are more focussed, clearer and my output higher.

As an example of how Poise made for more a more productive mental state, while working on multiple administrative issues I needed to recall a mailing address. In every session when I was in Poise I could do this with ease. During one particular session I was in Upset and I could not remember the address at all. I remember thinking “I know this information” but I had to look it up on my computer. When I returned to Poise I could again easily remember the address. This is one anecdote that reflects my qualitative experience of how clear my mind was when in either Upset or Poise. 

My second question was if the number of Upsets were decreasing per session. The techniques slightly improved the average time between upsets, but not enough to account for the overall improvement show in the first graph: 


The average time between Upsets in each session went from 2 minutes to 2.5 minutes over the course of the study. My qualitative experience was that the sessions had a steady diet of distractions and upsets that would occur before I was even aware of it and the machine had to alert me that I had triggered. My pre-conscious awareness was knocking me into an Upset state at a pretty steady rate. 

What accounted for the improvement? The techniques I developed to effectively react to the Upset look to be the driver. The length of time I spent in the Upset state once I detected it dropped over the course of the sessions:


Awareness and consistent response in this study was particularly effective in improving how fast I could reverse an Upset. The methods were based on the two navigational impulses I discussed in my earlier post on Feeling Lost or in the Wrong Place. I have now moved to measuring two sessions daily as training to embed the ability to reverse Upsets with a guide of keeping the % of session time in Upset at around 10%. So far the results have been positive. 

Look forward to seeing you at the QS SF Meetup


Anatomy of an Upset & Return to Poise

I introduced the concept of the heart’s EM signature and thought I would unpack a few Upsets and returns to Poise so we could see both the context and the movement at the EM spectrum level. Both of these Upsets were during a work session yesterday. I was using Heartmath ERMPro to measure my EM signature and a simple digital recorder to hear what I was thinking at the point of Upset. The environment was quiet and without distractions while I was returning emails to colleagues to set up meetings.

Upset #1: The Undefined Meeting Date

I sent a note to a colleague suggesting a date and time to meet and immediately pinged red on the meter. I felt that I was in the “Wrong Place”, a navigational term I introduced in an earlier post. The feeling originated from not knowing if I had created a conflict with other meetings and a vague sense that this colleague had already rejected this date. All of this was at the feeling level and added up to a signal of being in the Wrong Place. The signature looked like this:


The EM signature showed my heart in the very low band, usually associated with Sympathetic Nervous System, or “fight/flight.” This Wrong Place feeling had put me on alert at a fundamental level.

Having practiced the most effective response to this is reversing the belief, I started hunting for the underlying pre-conscious picture that was creating the trigger. After some tries I hit on it – the date and time I had proposed really did not work for me either. Here is the profile:


Though this reversal process s aimed at creating a new picture that sends a signal to the heart all is OK, the process is rapid and verbal. It sounds like this “I’m not actually available Tuesday, he is not available Tuesday, he didn’t want Tuesday, I don’t want Tuesday, I want a different date and time.” Pop. The meter flashes green and the EM signature is as shows. Still with a lot of low frequency noise, but the mid-range pops online to balance it and coherence emerges. And I feel better in the process.

Upset #2: I need to reschedule

Another Wrong Place upset, this time when I had to email a colleague early in the morning and let him know I had to push a meeting off a couple of hours due to an error on my part. I felt out of place on a vaguely guilty level of doing my colleague wrong. The steps and frequency picture looked like this:


Again a big spike on the lower frequency band, so much so that is overrode the pretty active frequencies near .1Hz which is associate with coherence. As a note though this graph looks like the graph from the previous example where I am in coherence the ratios are very much mathematically different. The area under the curve for low frequency is much higher here.

Using a reversal of belief approach I begin hunting for a return to Poise. It looked like this:


The hunting for the reversal started with my commitment and feeling out of place for suggesting a last minute change, and I ranged to my colleagues displeasure, and I routed back to the fact the meeting had been rescheduled multiple times already and that we had been flexible with each other. This popped the Upset and I was back in coherence after 18 seconds. This time the lower frequencies damped down completely and the feeling was quite positive. It helped when my colleague emailed back a bit later saying “No problem.”

The reversal process is fast and iterative. The average of 18 seconds that I see on these comes from first identifying I am in Upset, moving through a Wrong Place feeling to the process of pictures and reversals. There are a lot of wrong trials so getting it below 15 seconds will be difficult.

And in the spirit of transparency, sometimes I can languish in an Upset for up to a minute due to not following the reversal of belief or misidentifying the source repeatedly.

Next I will pull together snapshots of a “Lost” upset.

Heart EM Spectrum Working & Uninterrupted Focus

Did two sessions today, one to focus for 20 minutes without any activity, the other to measure how effectively I could return to Poise after detecting an upset using the Hearmath Pro. The device also took readings of the frequency spectrum of my system and the average of my system EM power emissions over the length of the session looked like this:



By Working I mean working in a quiet environment with no immediate physical danger while editing a document. While doing the uninterrupted session I was sitting in the exact same place. Instead of editing a document I was simply focussing on paced breathing. Both sessions were of similar length, 20 and 25 minutes respectively.

Each session had a spike at the .1Hz range, which is associated with the entrainment frequency of heart rate coherence. That means when your heart and breath are entrained you see the system emit a pretty steady .1Hz.

Of interest is during the Work session, the lower frequencies associated with the sympathetic (fight-flight) nervous system also showed a spike. During that session I had 2 navigational “Lost” feelings and 13 “Wrong Place” feelings. The average recovery for both was around 18 seconds.

I can not draw any conclusion from this but it certainly gives an other dimension to the training in that I can see the shape of sessions on an EM level and connect that to the shape of the emotions as they occur while I navigate through my mental territory of the work session.

Feeling Lost or in the Wrong Place

Building on my thought that emotions are navigational in nature, I conducted 27 additional sessions and capture 379 new Upsets using Heartmath Pro to measure heart rate coherence (HRC)  and recording my thoughts during the Upsets. I am calling the state of being out of HRC an Upset. I have found two pre-conscious navigational reactions that underpinned most of the Upsets. I was either feeling Lost or felt I was in the Wrong Place. For each type of Upset there was a different remedy that was effective.

To get at the pre-conscious feeling I observed and recorded 16 navigational concepts like “too fast” or “off position” when I moved into Upset. What that looked like was the device would trigger, I would look at what I was working on a how I felt. I expressed the description in navigational terms. So “I am angry at John” was instead described as “I am about to collide with John.” Each situation was easy to express and the concepts came very fast.

Taking the 379 points I removed those items that had too few data points to be significant and then looked at the average times move from each type of Upset based on the recovery method I used. I also looked at the standard deviation of the recovery times to see which ones tended to be more consistent when different remedies were applied. I had used five methods of recovery that included only breathing, appreciating someone, resetting my goal and reversing the belief.

What I found was that two remedies seemed to address a large group of very specific categories of navigational feelings. When I looked those Upsets that Reset the Goal solved for, they were all types of feelings that could be described as feeling Lost. When I looked at Reversing the Belief solved, they could all be described as the feeling of being in the Wrong Place.

For example if I was working on a document and felt I should be working on a different document I would trigger an Upset that I would describe as being in the Wrong Place. When I Reset the Goal and said “I will just finish this paragraph” I would return to coherence very quickly.

If I was reading a passage and did not understand what I was reading and literally got lost in the words I would trigger an Upset that I would describe as being Lost. When I thought “That is not true, I understand some of this” I returned to coherence. This is a Reversal of Belief.

I am now training on more rapidly identifying the feeling and deploying the appropriate remedy to match the feeling.

Emotion is Navigation

Michael Townsend Williams mentioned to me in a discussion about his app Breathe Sync that I might want to look at the work of Dr. Alan Watkins. I watched Dr. Watkins Tedx talk and perspective is very clear and explains a lot of the science behind coherence. I also popped his book on the Kindle and have been reading it. A lot in there, and the idea of the hierarchy of physiology, emotions, feeling and thinking brought a lot of clarity to the measurement work I have been doing with Upsets.

Watkins says, “Ask men how they feel and they tell you what they think.” That is precisely what has been happening in how I have been reporting my Upset reactions. And when I plough back through the data and look at the entries it is clear at the feeling level something else was happening entirely.

Looking at the frequency of the Upsets and their regularity, I could not imagine why I was getting Upset every two minutes. It was oddly regular. So much so, that it reminded me of my experiences doing open water swimming. The most efficient swim stroke is having your head in the water and keeping a horizontal position, but with open water swimming you have to break stride periodically and look up. It is inefficient because you disrupt your horizontal position but as a whole far more efficient than swimming smoothly and off the course. Are my “Upsets” really just a version of this navigation to ensure I am steering correctly?

I found that using work plans to focus on one thing for 25 minutes at a time removed a lot of Upsets. With that focus I did not have to question whether I was doing the most efficient activity or not. I was “in the right place” for that 25 minutes. I still was triggering based on elements of what I was doing but the entire set of questions regarding how I was using my time disappeared. I created a mental space of focus, and those navigational triggers around whether my activities were the best ones to be done at the time dropped.

I have started applying the structure to the trigger states, and sure enough each one has a feeling that can be described in roughly navigational terms. Sending a note to a friend I am judging whether it is “on the mark” or “off base,” following up on a new contact I feel that I am “moving too fast and getting too close” in the wording of the note. My hypothesis is we chunk relational information about people and how we are navigating relative to them and adjust our position accordingly using a feeling of steering to the right place. That will be the basis of my next set of measurements.

The Effect of Logging on the Return to Poise

In my post on Base Rate for HRV Recovery I outline the details of the Poised state versus the Upset state. What I am measuring is the effect of active remedies taken when the Upset occurs. The environment was working on the computer with as many variables as possible (sleep, exercise, food, etc) unchanged. I had the baseline data as described in the earlier post.

For the first test I wanted to see the effect on the amount of time it would take to return from Upset to Poise by simply and consciously logging the Upset. I used the Heartmath EmwavePro, Taplog and an Olympus VN-733PC digital recorder. I set the EmwavePro to make a low sound only when I my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) indicated I was in an Upset state. When I heard that, I would log the time on Taplog and speak what was on my mind into the Olympus recorder. At the end of each session I was then able to assemble a spreadsheet showing the Upset time, the length of time I was in the Upset and what I was thinking that may have triggered the Upset.

Over five hours of logging I had a list of 169 Upset events. Of those, 19 were about the process of doing the observations itself, like getting the devices to work. So 150 environmental triggers created upsets. In the baseline study the number was 124. So a generalization can be that while working on the computer some stimulus sends me from Poise to Upset every two minutes.

Each Upset had a different recovery time, which I have displayed in this chart showing the number of upsets by length of recovery time. I show both baseline and logging results.



Of interest is that there were an equal number of “long trigger” (over 61 seconds) Upset events and a large difference in the under 15 second group. There were nearly twice as many under 15 second events when logging than when doing nothing (baseline). I noticed that interruptions in attention cause short Upset spikes, and the act of logging was full of interrupted attention. Was that interruption worth it? Only if the total number of minutes in Upset was reduced. Here is the chart showing total number of minutes grouped by length of time.


This picture is much different. The similarity is on the low end of the scale, meaning even though there were double the number of Upset events while logging, the amount of time not Poised was not nearly as impactful on total time. When we get to those Upset events that were 46 seconds or over, the baseline number of seconds in Upset state are clearly higher though the number of triggers were similar.

So it does appear that logging tactically reduces the amount of time spend in Upset. How much? The total time in the 5 hours of baseline readings that were in Upset was 27.6% of the time (82 minutes out of 300). The total time in Upset for Logging was 26% of the time (78 minutes out of 300). So logging “saved” about 4.6 minutes out of the 300 total. Not an impressive result if we expect to have an active measure deliver us back more time in the Poised state.

Next I will be measuring what the literature considers the largest lever we have – respiration.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,703 other followers