Heart rate variability typically decreases during stressful situations, although the heart rate increases. Managing stress levels can mean a more variable heart rate. Exercise and relaxation techniques can reduce stress.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation of time between a person’s heartbeats over a specific period, such as 5 minutes. Doctors may also monitor HRV over a 24-hour period.

Factors such as age, exercise, and genetics can all affect HRV.

This article looks at how stress can affect HRV, how someone can check their HRV, and how to manage stress.

A person doing a seated stretch with reduced heart rate variability.-2Share on Pinterest
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Stress is a state of mental tension or apprehension. It arises in response to situations an individual considers challenging or dangerous. According to a 2021 research review, stress can affect HRV.

The review explains that during stressful situations, the body sends certain signals to the heart. These increase the person’s heart rate but decrease the HRV because the heart rate is consistently high.

This response is adaptive, as stressful situations might require a consistently high heart rate.

When these signals change, the heart rate lowers. However, HRV increases. This means that a person’s heart rate can change more easily. All else being equal, this is a good thing.

A more variable heart rate means that the heart can more easily adapt to the body’s demands as they change from moment to moment.

Other factors that affect HRV

According to research from the same review, the following factors can all affect HRV:

  • Age: An individual’s resting HRV is high until age 15 years, but decreases with older age.
  • Exercise: Exercise can decrease HRV in general. However, more strenuous forms of exercise can cause a rise in HRV.
  • Disease: Infection and inflammation can cause lower HRV.
  • Environmental factors: Social stress and noise can increase HRV, whereas low levels of carbon monoxide decrease it.
  • Lifestyle factors: Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol increases HRV, whereas drinking more reduces it. Smoking also decreases HRV.
  • Psychological factors: Both depression and anxiety can decrease HRV.
  • Genetic factors: HRV tends to be higher in females. Some research suggests HRV is also higher in Black people. There is evidence that both effects are partly genetic, but further research is necessary.

Doctors typically use an ECG/EKG to measure HRV. An ECG is a machine that can detect and graph the electrical activity of the heart.

Doctors can use those graphs to look for specific indicators of HRV in their patient’s heart rate. Because HRV can vary with different conditions, measuring HRV can help doctors in their diagnosis.

Some smartwatches and apps may help people to measure and calculate their HRV. However, these are typically less accurate than a continuous EKG, which remains standard for measuring HRV.

Interpreting HRV results from an EKG requires training because HRV can vary greatly. It can be low or high depending on someone’s overall health.

People should speak with a healthcare professional if they have concerns about their heart rate.

High stress levels can negatively affect an individual’s mental and physical health.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), the following methods may help a person manage their stress levels:

It may also be useful for individuals to experiment with their own stress-management techniques. This could involve exercise, relaxing hobbies, or cultivating a better work-life balance.

Although everyone experiences some stress from time to time, too much stress can affect a person’s health. A 2017 review links chronic stress to the following issues:

  • memory problems
  • cognitive dysfunction
  • heart problems
  • digestive dysfunction
  • immune system dysregulation
  • increased inflammation

Anyone worried about their stress levels should speak with a healthcare professional who can help them find effective ways to reduce stress levels and treat any health consequences of chronic stress.

Doctors can use EKGs to measure the variation in the time between heartbeats in a specific time period. This is an individual’s heart rate variability. This can be a period of 5 minutes, although a 24-hour period is ideal.

Research suggests that higher stress reduces a person’s HRV, producing a consistently high heart rate. When a person is less stressed, their heart rate changes more easily.

High stress levels can negatively affect someone’s mental and physical well-being.

It can cause difficulties with memory, mood, and various bodily processes. Exercise, deep breathing, and meditation are all effective stress-management techniques.