Improve Willpower in 5 Mins | How Heart Rate Variability helps Brain Function

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 2nd, 2017.

On March 3rd , I found myself in a quite ironic situation: 

While listening to “The Willpower Instinct,” by Kelly McGonigal, I was lining up to buy something that would end up undermining my willpower. 

The problem was that the new Zelda game was way better than I anticipated.

I would set aside 30 minutes to play which would quickly turn into an hour then two hours and so on. I was still able to fulfill important obligations of course, but I started to think it was affecting my focus when I was trying to read a research paper about internet gaming addiction, but couldn’t focus because the words “gaming” kept giving me a craving to play Zelda. Now you could probably break down what makes this particular game potentially addicting like…  the endless unpredictable novelty of the game environment stimulates an abnormal release of dopamine, leading to similar changes in the brain as addictive substances. But it’s easier to say the game is just too good. It’s like what Louis CK said about drugs. 

Louis C.K. telling his kids not to do drugs : standupshots

OK So after investing way too much time into finishing the game and finally starting to shift back into my creative and productive mode, I noticed I had less capacity for willpower in general. It wasn’t so much that Zelda was preoccupying my mind, it was just more difficult to get to work and stay focused in general, and a lot of times I would diffuse that uncomfortable tension by zoning out on my smartphone or on social media websites.

So, in these uncomfortable moments of really not wanting to do the harder thing, I started using this breathing technique I picked up from the Willpower Instinct. Basically you just breathe in one breath for 10 seconds and breathe out that breath for 10 seconds. This slows your breathing down to about 4 to 6 breaths per minute. Five to ten minutes of this was usually enough to dissolve that tension and give me the willpower to focus on work. This kind of breathing is significant because it improves something called heart rate variability. 

When people talk about heart rate they are actually talking about the average heart rate over one minute. You know the kind of scene on House where they inject the dying patient with some unexpectedly effective thing like snake venom and then the heart monitor shows a pulse and you hear a ping ping ping. The ping is when the heart contracts, this generates a bit of electricity which the machine can read. So heart rate variability refers to variations in the time between these pings. If there is precisely one ping every second, your heart rate is 60 beats per minute but you have virtually no heart rate variability. If there’s .85 seconds between the first two pings and then 0.90 seconds between the second two and then .95 seconds then .90 seconds again and so on, then you have some heart rate variability. This is a good thing. 

Everybody’s heart rate changes throughout the day and even moment to moment. Your heart speeds up a little bit when you inhale. It slows down again when you exhale. A smooth variation of heart rate is good and means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: one is the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds you up and is responsible for things like the fight or flight response, and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and engages during processes like digestion. 

Studies show that people with higher HRV are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, dealing with stressful situations and are less likely to give up on difficult tasks. HRV has been called the body’s “reserve” of willpower.

This is because Heart rate variability is the single best physiological measurement of something called the pause and plan response.

Pause and plan is essentially the opposite of the body’s fight or flight response. 

When your environment presents you with stressful situation, the brain switches on the fight or flight response, and as much energy as possible is directed to the body to help you run or fight. This means energy is directed away from the brain.  

The pause and plan response starts when the prefrontal cortex identifies that another part of your brain is asking you to do something that may benefit you now but is not helpful for long term goals. It could be something like wanting to drink a beer at lunch or eating cake for breakfast. To generate the self control to slow down and make the decision to not do these things, energy needs to be transferred from the body to the brain. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other automatic functions. Then all these processes slow down and self control improves. 

When people successfully exert self control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up.  

Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, observed this physiological signature of self-control when she asked hungry students to not eat freshly baked cookies in front of them. As they sat there resisting the cookies, their heart rate variability went up. Variability in other participants who were free to eat the cookies stayed the same.

HRV is such a good indicator of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist cravings. For example, recovering alcoholics whose HRV goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics whose heart  rate variability drops when they see a drink – have a greater risk of relapse. 

In fact, your body, brain and mental willpower are so well connected that people with strong self control can actually stay a bit more sober on the same amount of alcohol when they need to.  A report from the University of Kentucky compared alcohol metabolism in a group of men with similar body compositions. The men went through an evaluation process to assess their ability for self control, then they drank the same amount of alcohol and their blood alcohol content was measured afterwards. They found that the men who ranked higher in self control were actually less drunk. 

The study gives an example where two men with different levels of self control each have two drinks “Then, their supervisor from work arrives unexpectedly, and they spend the next 30 min regulating their behavior so as to appear sober. All else being equal, the present results suggest that the man with high trait self-control will likely have a BAC around .026, and the man with low trait self-control will have a BAC around .032 – approximately 20% higher.”

 So why do some people just have better heart rate variability and better self control than other people? Many factors influence your capacity for self control- things like anxiety, anger, depression, poor sleep, loneliness and even poor air quality are all associated with worse heart rate variability. Things like regular exercise and proper diet can improve HRV. 

Practicing meditation or the controlled breathing technique I mentioned earlier also increases heart rate variability. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing improved HRV and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and PTSD. 

But whether you’ve been practicing this or not, at any time you can take a moment to slow your breathing down to manually improve your heart rate variability and self-control in the moment.

In this presentation, Dr. Alan Watkins actually demonstrates how breathing like this can quickly improve your HRV.  A volunteer is hooked up to a device that measures the change in his heart rate and as you can see when he first walks up on stage his heart rate is quite erratic, but after he begins to breathe in a slow rhythmic fashion, you start to see nice smooth waveform. 

The main thing that’s happening when you breathe like this is: you’re simply destressing yourself and creating the physiology of calmness. As mentioned earlier, the stressful fight or flight response diverts energy from the brain to the body. When this happens activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases- that is the cautious, rational, planning and thinking part of the brain begins to shut down. This is good in some situations, you don’t want to have to slowly decide to run from a bear, but some situations you really don’t want your prefrontal cortex shutting down. It lowers your willpower and you become more impulsive, but other forms of self control suffer. With less prefrontal cortex activity, you may yell at your spouse, forget how to use words during a job interview, and you might find yourself saying “Hi, my name is come here often?” to an attractive woman at the bar. 

This slow and controlled breathing engages the pause and plan response and directs more energy to the prefrontal cortex giving you better control over yourself. 

This brings me to my favorite point in Dr. Watkin’s talk: At the root of behavior is physiology. If you want to improve your behavior, you need to change how you think- and if you’re in a negative emotional state, you’re angry, worried, sleepy, anxious, it’s quite hard to change your thoughts. This is why telling someone don’t worry doesn’t do much and why telling someone not to be angry would just make them angrier. 

And Most emotional states are determined by feedback between the brain and the body- your physiology influences emotion. This is why you feel jittery or anxious when you drink too much coffee, you don’t just calmly observe your heart rate rising. 

The hard thing about having a powerful imaginative human brain that comes with abstract thought is that we can turn anything into a source of stress. An offhand comment from your boss or simply the absence of a text message from a person you’re attracted to can be interpreted by your brain as a threat to survival. This causes your body to express the physiology of stress which affects your emotional state which affects your thoughts which affects your behavior. If you want to better control your behavior, one thing you can do is invest a couple minutes into controlling your breathing and changing your physiology which is the root of your behavior.

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