Category Archives: Delivery Skills

Stress and Breath

There are many articles on the benefits of focused breathing for stress relief. (CoherenceLLC 2018; Crockett et al. 2016; Tyagi et al. 2014). Practiced every day for 5 minutes in a sequence of breathing in for 4seconds hold for 4 seconds breath out for 4 seconds can bring your system back into balance.

I have seen this on many occasions with my clients, none more striking than with students who were suffering from presentation anxiety. After practicing this technique for a period of time they reported clearer thinking, no more blushing and improved confidence. They also said that if they perceived there to be a stressful situation approaching, their system would automatically kick into the breathing sequence and prevent anxiety from taking hold.

But why does it work? When we inhale our heart rate goes up and when we exhale our heart rate goes down, this is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and is measured by heart rate variability.  (Gerritsen &Band 2018). This is important because if we can control our heart rate, we can affect our heart rate variability which we know is a measure of our state of wellbeing.

This is not to say that someone who is suffering from chronic stress or medically diagnosed stress can suddenly switch from a negative state to a positive state. What it does say is that by combining breathing and other techniques we can positively impact our state.

Dr Alan Watkins suggests that “The easiest way to remember this breathing technique is through the BREATHE acronym: Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.” (Watkins 2014)

CoherenceLLC 2018, The Science of Coherent Breathing – Complete Document, 2014, viewed <>.

Crockett, JE, Cashwell, CS, Tangen, JL, Hall, KH & Young, JS 2016, ‘Breathing Characteristics and Symptoms of Psychological Distress: An Exploratory Study’, Counseling and Values, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 10-27.

Gerritsen, RJS & Band, GPH 2018, ‘Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity’, Front Hum Neurosci, vol. 12,

Tyagi, A, Cohen, M, Reece, J & Telles, S 2014, ‘An explorative study of metabolic responses to mental stress and yoga practices in yoga practitioners, non-yoga practitioners and individuals with metabolic syndrome’, BMC Complement Altern Med, vol. 14,

Watkins, A 2014, Coherence : the secret science of brilliant leadership, Kogan Page, London ; Philadelphia.

Team Stress & HRV

Individual coaching using Heart rate variability can be very powerful as we have seen in previous posts. But how does it relate to Teams?

“Team HRV” literally takes the pulse of the team or even the organisation. By doing so this gives team leaders, managers, general managers and even CEOs the ability to respond instantly to signs of stress.

The response may be to slow the team down, apply more pressure or apply a “steady as she goes” approach. This is powerful because you don’t have to wait for an event to occur and apply a remedy. HRV can give predictive information so that the any strategies are proactive not reactive saving time and money

When using team HRV in sport the players understand the direct benefit of this type of protocol. However, in organisations there may not be the same level of willingness to participate due to confidentiality and the fear of “big brother”. This can be easily overcome by making the recording and analysis of the data anonymous.

Which raises the question if it’s anonymous then how do we help those in need? Whilst an individual’s results may be hidden from their manager, this information may be accessible to an independent coach with whom the individual has a relationship. Once again the coach can be proactive and if they see signs of negative trends they can alert the individual and develop strategies accordingly.  Likewise the coach can analyse the teams’ state, contact the manager and suggest certain strategies or highlight the need for caution.

Jason More(2018) from EliteHRV shows on the company’s blog what a typical team dashboard might look like:

Here we can see the team members in the second column (which could be made anonymous) and the relevant measures. The dashboard uses traffic light colours, green: things are going well and you can apply more pressure, yellow: things need to be approached with caution or red: stop and check what’s happening.

The benefit of this kind of insight can be quite extensive, a few examples are:

  • the avoidance or reduction of errors
  • the avoidance or reduction of absenteeism
  • increased motivation
  • analysis of the impact of announcements on individuals
  • longitudinal analysis of the effect of major restructures

It is important to note that HRV captures every stressor that happens in a person’s life, both inside and outside work. Therefore this needs to be taken into account when evaluating the results. A way to address this is to annotate readings with symbols that highlight a major personal event.  This is still important and should not be removed as it will still effect performance.

HRV training is used in sport, both for individuals and teams, and for individuals in business. To my knowledge however, the team dashboard in business is not common but would be an exciting and natural extension of this methodology.

Moore, J 2018, HRV For Teams and Groups, @elitehrv, viewed 19 November, <>.

Measuring Stress

We have spoken about Heart Rate variability (HRV), stress and performance in the last few posts. In todays post I want to highlight some ways that you can measure your HRV. To recap, heart rate variability (HRV) is a well-understood phenomenon allowing us to monitor objectively physiological stress (Altini 2018a). If we can monitor stress (good and bad) then we can act before it has a negative impact and use it to improve our performance. (Marcelo Campos 2017)) for more on this.

Now we know why, how do we actually measure it? There are several easy to use devices which measure your HRV either by ear clip, wired finger clip, chest strap, Bluetooth finger clip or your camera phone and now your watch.  Some manufacturers I have used are:

  • EliteHRV (@elitehrv 2018)
  • Hrv4Training (Altini 2018b)
  • Ithlete (@myithlete 2018)
  • Complete Coherence (Watkins 2018)
  • Biocom Technologies ( 2018)

I have also used the Polar V800 for the collection data which I then export and analyse with KUBIOS hrv software.  This export function is no longer available from Polar as they have incorporated the analysis of the data into the watch itself. Their new watch Vantage V (PolarGlobal 2018) still has the optical sesnors on the back of the watch for the collection of heart data but still uses their chest strap for the collection of HRV data to ensure accuracy

 When measuring HRV it is important to:

  • Have accurate data
  • Avoid confounding factors such as coffee or recording after a late night
  • Take a recording first thing in the morning upon waking, at the same time and position eg sitting.
  • Take it 4-5 times a week for 4 – 5 minutes each time.

(Schwellnus et al. 2016) highlights the importance of collecting both subjective and objective data in order to draw meaningful conclusions.  Ensure the platform you choose allows for this.

Next post we’ll talk about HRV and teams.

@elitehrv 2018, Elite HRV – Heart Rate Variability, @elitehrv, viewed <>.

@myithlete 2018, ithlete heart rate variability training tool, @myithlete, viewed <>.

Altini, M 2018a, ‘Heart Rate Variability: a (deep) primer’, hrv4training, 23/11/2017,<>.

Altini, M 2018b, hrv4training, viewed <>. 2018, Health Assessment products with Heart Rate Variability Analysis (HRV), viewed <>.

Marcelo Campos, M 2017, Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being  – Harvard Health Blog, Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, viewed 15 November, <>.

PolarGlobal 2018, Polar Vantage V | High-end multisport & triathlon watch for ambitious athletes | Polar Global, viewed 16 November, <>.

Schwellnus, M, Soligard, T, Alonso, J-M, Bahr, R, Clarsen, B, Dijkstra, HP, Gabbett, TJ, Gleeson, M, Hägglund, M, Hutchinson, MR, Janse Van Rensburg, C, Meeusen, R, Orchard, JW, Pluim, BM, Raftery, M, Budgett, R & Engebretsen, L 2016, ‘How much is too much? (Part 2) International Olympic Committee consensus statement on load in sport and risk of illness’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 50, no. 17, pp. 1043-1052.

Watkins, A 2018, Coherence Trainer, viewed <>.

Mental Health and ANS

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as:

“…a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (WHO | Mental health: a state of well-being  2014)

Galderisi et al. (2015) builds on this definition and adds a further dimension

“Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium”

In Galderisi’s definition there are a few familiar components, but let’s briefly discuss internal equilibrium. Internal equilibrium is taken to mean bodily equilibrium is achieved when our physiology is in balance. This is important because as Dr Alan Watkins describes it;

“ what is really driving our behaviour is our thinking. And what we think, and how well we think it, is largely determined by our feelings, which are driven by our emotions, which are made up of our physiology.” (Watkins 2014)

So if we know how to manage our physiology we are better positioned to handle life’s different stressors.

The system that is responsible for managing our physiology is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Fortunately, it is possible to measure the state of our ANS and therefore our mental health by measuring our heart rate variability (HRV).

Measuring our HRV is useful for two reasons; one because sometimes we don’t recognise when we are out of balance and we can, therefore, take steps to manage the situation. Secondly, we can determine which combination of strategies works best to achieve a balanced state.

We’ll talk about our HRV measurement tools in our next post.

Galderisi, S, Heinz, A, Kastrup, M, Beezhold, J & Sartorius, N 2015, ‘Toward a new definition of mental health’, World Psychiatry, vol. 14, no. 2, Jun, pp. 231-3.

Watkins, A 2014, Coherence, 1 edn, Kogan Page Limited

WHO | Mental health: a state of well-being,  2014, World Health Organization, viewed <>.

Survival on a London Trading Floor

Kandasamy et al. (2016) found in their recent research that financial traders interoceptive ability (gut feelings) predicts their profitability and how long they survived in the financial markets.

Specifically, they said:

“Traders in the financial world often speak of the importance of gut feelings for choosing profitable trades. By this they mean that subtle physiological changes in their bodies provide cues helping them rapidly select from a range of possible trades the one that just ‘feels right’. Our findings suggest that the gut feelings informing this decision are more than the mythical entities of financial lore – they are real physiological signals, valuable ones at that.”

One of the key determinants of this success was the traders’ ability to detect their heartbeat. An accurate detection score predicted their profitability. The question then arose as to what predicts heartbeat detection itself? They looked at BMI, heart rate and heart rate variability. Heart rate variability proved more indicative than the other two.

From our point of view, this is further evidence that attending to our physiological as well as our psychological needs is vital in reaching peak performance.

Kandasamy, N., Garfinkel, S. N., Page, L., Hardy, B., Critchley, H. D., Gurnell, M., & Coates, J. M. (2016). Interoceptive Ability Predicts Survival on a London Trading Floor. Scientific reports, 6, 32986. doi:10.1038/srep32986 <;

Chronic Stress

In their journal article on chronic stress, Teixeira et al. (2015) conclude that:

“..chronic psychological stress associated with higher levels of cortisol impairs cognitive performance in business executives independently of genders, ..”

Whilst cortisol has many important functions in our body such as controlling our blood pressure and reducing inflammation (Health Direct, 2018) too much for too long can have a negative effect. Echouffo-Tcheugui et al. (2018) found higher cortisol was associated with lower brain size in younger to middle-aged adults.

In order to prevent chronic or long-term stress we need to do a few things:

  1. Understanding what brings your system into balance. This won’t be the same for everyone; running, boxing, meditating, walking or singing?
  2. Understand the signs of chronic stress; headaches, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, irritability, skipping productive parts of your daily routine such as lunch or drinking water.
  3. Measure the state of your system on a regular basis by measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV measurement is an important part of our self-care toolbox.

You don’t start training for a marathon the day before the event, so we need to be proactive in our management of stress.

Renata Roland Teixeira, Miguel Mauricio Díaz, Tatiane Vanessa da Silva Santos, Jean Tofoles Martins Bernardes, Leonardo Gomes Peixoto, Olga Lucia Bocanegra, Morun Bernardino Neto, Foued Salmen Espindola 2015, ‘Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives’, <;

Health Direct 2018, viewed 13 November 2018, <;

Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, Sarah C. Conner, Jayandra J. Himali, Pauline Maillard, Charles S. DeCarli, Alexa S. Beiser, Ramachandran S. Vasan, Sudha Seshadri 2018, ‘Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures’, Neurology, <;

Heart rate Variability

HRV, heart rate variability is the degree of fluctuation in the length of the intervals between heart beats. (Malik & Camm, 1995)

HRV has been used in medicine for many years and in more recent years in sport as an indicator of stress when to train and when not to train.

Technology has advanced so quickly that  Executive Coaches now have access to the technology that measures HRV.  This enables them to measure a clients stress levels in a non-invasive way and in real time. After interpreting the data, the coach can then ascertain methods by which these stress levels can be addressed.
Depending on the software used, the interpretation of the results can be either self evident or may require a small degree of analysis.
Other Resources
Heart rate variability biofeedback: how and why does it work?
In recent years there has been substantial support for heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) as a treatment for a variety of disorders and for performance enhancement (Gevirtz, 2013). Since conditions as widely varied as asthma and depression seem to respond to this form of cardiorespiratory feedback training, the issue of possible mechanisms becomes more salient. The most supported possible mechanism is the strengthening of homeostasis in the baroreceptor (Vaschillo et al., 2002; Lehrer et al., 2003). Recently, the effect on the vagal afferent pathway to the frontal cortical areas has been proposed. In this article, we review these and other possible mechanisms that might explain the positive effects of HRVB.  More here
It’s pretty well documented that regular aerobic exercise can result in an increase in resting HRV. Generally, you can expect no change or even a slight increase in HRV the day following low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise. However, with higher intensity training, HRV can take up to 48-72 hours to return to baseline, depending on intensity, duration, training status, fitness level, age, gender, etc. (Stanley et al. 2014). more here


Getting Stronger
Stressed out?

There’s a surprisingly simple but little-known technique for measuring your in-the-moment ability to handle physical, mental and emotional stress.  more here

Psychology Today
What is heart rate variability?

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological marker of how we experience and regulate our emotions. But before we discuss HRV and emotion regulation in greater detail, let’s take a quick biology refresher. Whenever we are confronted with potential dangers (e.g., walking alone at night, being chased by a rabid dog), we enact a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate (HR) spikes up, our breathing gets shallower, our muscles tense up, and so on. read more here..

Biocom Technologies
The origin of heartbeat is located in a right atrium wall of the heart, where a group of specialized cells forms so‐called “sine node” that continuously generates electrical impulses spreading all over the heart muscle through specialized pathways and causing well‐synchronized heart muscle contraction leading to its proper blood pumping. read more here…

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) (Figure 1) is the portion of the nervous system that controls the body’s visceral functions, including action of the heart, movement of the gastrointestinal tract and secretion by different glands, among many other vital activities. It is well known that mental and emotional states directly affect the ANS. Read more here

Monitoring Heart Rate Variability is so much more valuable than just monitoring heart rate.

Heart rate variability (usually known as HRV) is a relatively new method for assessing the effects of stress on your body. It is measured as the time gap between your heart beats that varies as you breathe in and out. Research evidence increasingly links high HRV to good health and a high level of fitness, whilst decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue and even burnout. Read more here

American Heart Association
The last two decades have witnessed the recognition of a significant relationship between the autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular mortality, including sudden cardiac death.1 2 3 4 Experimental evidence for an association between propensity for lethal arrhythmias and signs of either increased sympathetic or reduced vagal activity has spurred efforts for the development of quantitative markers of autonomic activity. Read more here

Stress and Heart Rate Variability. All sorts of things can cause stress, from physical exertion to a bad day at work. There’s “good” stress (like receiving a big promotion), and there’s “bad” stress (like having a traffic accident). For the purposes of this discussion, “stress” means bad stress. Read more here
Technical Explanation

Heart Rate Variability – Farid Medleg

How to stop night time anxiety

It’s been a long, tiring day and you’re feeling shattered. Finally you crawl into bed, physically exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep… only to find your mind has other ideas. Instead of drifting off into weightless slumber, your brain fires up, your pulse quickens and your head becomes crowded with endless worries you thought had been parked for the day.

Source: How to stop night time anxiety

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