The role of heart rate variability in business and leadership

24th Feb 2015

Dr. Alan Watkins writes on the science of coherent leadership which encompasses a wide range of areas brought together to help individuals in business increase their developmental levels and be more personally effective. Alan is an honorary senior lecturer in neuroscience and psychological medicine at Imperial College, London and originally qualified as a physician. Alan worked with the Great Britain rowing squad prior to the London Olympics and provides continued guidance to the coaches in advance of Rio 2016. He is the founder and CEO of Complete Coherence

Everybody has their own ideas on what it really takes to generate and sustain exceptional performance; some advocate relaxation techniques, some suggest we all need to be put under pressure to perform, and some argue that it is a matter of will and determination. The myriad of answers ignore the single most vital influence on performance, the most vital aspect of our existence – the heart.

Every second of every day, the brain receives numerous streams of data from all the bodily systems. These physiological data streams are sent from the heart, the gut, the lungs, the liver, the spleen etc. Some of these signals are stronger than others, with the most powerful of all being the electrical signal generated by the heart. Studies have shown that the small fluctuations in the heart rate (Heart Rate Variability - HRV) can be predictive of results in all sorts of environments. 

If you can learn to control aspects of your physiology, including your HRV, you can significantly improve your perceptiveness and the quality of your decision making. The reason for this is that controlling your physiology optimises the cognitive processes going on in your brain, specifically in the frontal cortex – the executive part of your brain. The improvements in brain function and energy levels, resulting from controlling your HRV can be very dramatic.

If the HRV signal is too chaotic the streams of information your heart is communicating to your brain will also be chaotic. This can lead to irrational and poor decision making, impacting your life both personally and commercially. HRV signals that are both restricted and chaotic are linked to low energy levels, while greater amplitude of HRV and a more stable coherent pattern in HRV is related to brilliant performance and an abundance of energy.        

The problem is that most leaders are unable to control their own physiology, because they have never been shown how to. The best way to generate stable coherence in your HRV signal is by breathing with a regular even rhythmn. A chaotic HRV signal is often caused by erratic breathing patterns. Through consistent breathing practices you can control the quality of the information you send round your body. With better quality data your system can function more effectively and efficiently.

Once you have stabilised your physiology using these specific breathing techniques you can learn to control your entire emotional state. Once you have done this you never need to feel any emotion you don’t want to feel again. You get to control your emotions, rather than being a victim of others. Such control of your breathing and emotions will ultimately enable you to control your thoughts, behaviour and, ultimately, your results.


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By birdwood
26th Feb 2015 21:06

Absolutely, but this idea is wanting a justifying argument. Dysautonomia is manifest when the sympathetic (fight&flight) nervous system dominates the para-sympathetic (rest&digest). The former relies on endocrine chemicals which engage with beta receptors to prepare for action (hence: beta-blockers, for those who over-rev their engine). It's a coarse control from our monkeybrain, since neurotransmitters float around until re-uptake. Fine tuning is electrical, off the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. Working on the higher brain thru meditation may yield benefit, and Richie Davidson is worth following. What I believe is more important is to get into Stephen Levine's soft-belly mindfulness, getting the diaphragm into action (rather than a heaving chest) when we breathe. That lets go of a lot of tension, and prepares the mind for equanimity.
A better outcome for all.

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Alan Watkins
By Alan Watkins
28th Feb 2015 12:46

Sympathetic dominance is not necessarily a bad thing. People who are exuberant are sympathetically dominant. Likewise, high vagal may not be helpful. The diaphragm is always involved in breathing. Mindfulness is many things to many people so it needs to be carefully defined. Davidson's work is helpful. Equanimity can also be helpful. I am not sure the concept of "monkey brain" is that neuroscientifically accurate or even metaphorically that helpful.

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Replying to alanwatkins:
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By birdwood
04th Mar 2015 03:26

Exuberance is profitably productive in the corporate setting, but over-achievers are most vulnerable to burnout : Boudewijn van Houdenhove isn't just a fabulous name but a provider of great insight into the consequences of allostatic load.
Women don't stomach breathe - whether 'tis due to the uterus, or taut tummy vanity there's a need to focus on the breath. And amygdala isn't in the HR vocab.

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