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Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback

HRVB is a biofeedback technique used to improve self-regulation and coping mechanisms, while strengthening the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. With use of highly sensitive machines, beat-by-beat heart rate data and respiratory changes are fed back to the individual, who is being instructed to breath slowly and deeply.  

HRVB—also called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) biofeedback or resonance frequency feedback (RFF)—was developed in the 1990s, as researchers experimented with cardiorespiratory interventions. More recently, it has been used as an effective treatment for a variety of disorders—ranging from the psychological (anxiety, depression) to the physiological (asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, hormonal responses)—and for performance enhancement (for athletes, for example). 

In addition, HRVB can positively affect other health and performance-related outcomes, such as injury risk and recovery. 

Clinicians first measure baseline physiological or chronic stress in their clients toward helping them balance HRVB training and daily life. Over weeks or longer, clients can rely on the data collected to reduce stress and make meaningful adjustments to improve health and performance. 

The Science

The body responds to stressful stimuli via the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in an attempt to maintain a state of balance. By measuring ANS, clinicians can determine the effectiveness of this physiological self-regulation process. ANS is composed of two branches:

Sympathetic branch: Associated with “fight or flight” and excitatory responses

Parasympathetic branch: Characterized by inhibitory and restorative responses—such as lowering heart and breathing rates—so the body’s systems can stay in balance after facing a stressor

Over the past 50 years, a vast body of research has showed consistent reductions in parasympathetic activity in individuals facing physical and psychological stressors. Additionally, reduced parasympathetic activity has been associated with various clinical conditions (depression and anxiety), as well as with higher mortality risk.

Since the influence of breathing on heart rate is mostly modulated by the parasympathetic branch, deep breathing can “train” the parasympathetic system. This may explain HRVB’s positive effects in reducing stress and anxiety.

Strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system may motivate athletes to use HRVB, due to its potential of improving emotional self-regulation, coping mechanisms and performance.

Building a Habit

The original biofeedback protocols recommend 2 sessions of 20 minutes per day. Many HRVB apps are now on the market, often shortening the protocols to as little as 3 minutes per day. While these represent promising developments, science supports committing the time and effort to follow the original protocols to see meaningful change. This may add to the difficulty of building a daily HRVB habit. However, feeling relaxed and de-stressed after a HRVB session can itself be motivating for individuals to build up to longer, daily sessions. In fact, biofeedback sessions are similar to other training sessions, as something to do for long-term, beneficial changes in health and performance. 

Learn more about Mind-Body Therapies offered at CFI…



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