How to Use Biofeedback to Manage Anger

It was previously thought that we could not influence our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). However, research into the methods of innovators such as Wim Hof has demonstrated that we can use fairly straightforward practices to do just that[1]. Yes, by monitoring biofeedback, and using the breath, and the power of our heart, we can gain a measure of active control.

In this article you will learn what biofeedback is and how it works, with a focus on specific use cases and benefits. You will gain an understanding of the key role of the ANS, heart rate variability (HRV), and how they are linked. I will show you how to measure and interpret HRV, and highlight some specific backed methods of using HRV training to reduce Anger  and increase focus.

Over the last twelve months I have utilised these concepts to dramatically reduce my day to day Anger  levels. This has enabled me to reside in a state of purposeful calm that has dramatically increased my focus and productivity in both my work and personal life. I believe it has also made me a better person (which is of course very subjective).

Like anything worth doing in life, taking charge and making a positive change does require some commitment on your part. The good news, is that the benefits far outweigh the commitment, and can have far reaching, long-term benefits for your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing[2].

Biofeedback use cases and benefits

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback defines biofeedback as “a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance”[3]. What does this mean in real terms?

Our bodies are continually producing, processing and reacting to information to maintain the equilibrium that keeps us functioning as we should be. Humans have now developed technology that enables us to measure, display and interpret this information in real time. Using this biofeedback we can identify when and where we are out of sync, and target these imbalances to optimise our health and wellbeing.

This involves using sensors to measure many types of biofeedback, including blood pressure, brainwaves, breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, and skin temperature. These measurements are fed back to the subject in real time, enabling them to influence ordinarily automatic bodily processes. Biofeedback is used to treat a range of issues, and through regular practice individuals can affect long-term positive physiological changes.

There is a growing body of research that offers empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of biofeedback. It has been shown to have a positive impact in treading a variety of conditions, including; anxiety[4], chronic pain[5], hypertension[6], substance abuse[7], sleep disorders[8], Anger [9], and traumatic brain injuries[10].

The role of your nervous system

One common complaint we all face in life is Anger . This is driven by the fast pace and non-stop demands of modern life. We are constantly “on”, bombarded by non-stop stimuli, leading to the excessive activation of the sympathetic branch of our ANS. Chronic Anger  is potentially responsible for decreased immunity, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, and sleep disorders[11].

Biofeedback is very useful for targeting Anger  as it allows us to gain a measure of control over our the ANS. The ANS typically operates outside of our conscious control, and is responsible for a wide range of bodily processes, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes.

It is primarily made up of two major branches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is also known as the “fight or flight” system, and the PNS is also known as the “rest and digest” system.

The PNS is governed to a large degree by the vagus nerve, which provides parasympathetic feedback throughout your entire body. In an ideal world we have a strong vagal tone that keeps us in a state of calm, supported by a nimble fight or flight response that is activated only when genuinely required.

Introducing heart rate variability

I mentioned HRV at the beginning of this article. It is a key indicator of this health and balance of your ANS. It is best understood as the pattern of your heartbeat. If you have a resting heart rate of sixty beats per minute, your heart is not beating regularly at one beat per second. The interval between each heartbeat varies in length. This difference in time between heart beats is your HRV.

The reason for this variance is due to the fact that your heart rate is controlled by the aforementioned ANS. Activation of the SNS speeds up your heart rate, getting you ready for action. The PNS slows it down, putting you in a state of relaxation. HRV is a reflection of the delicate interplay of these two systems[12].

Low HRV indicates an unhealthy ANS, dominated by the over activation of the sympathetic branch. It is a common problem we face, as the human fight or flight response has not evolved to evaluate and react appropriately to the constant stream of stimuli that modern life throws at us[13]. This has been shown to further reduce HRV[14], lead to Anger  and anxiety[15], and increased risk of death from several causes[16].

Conversely, high HRV can be considered a strong indicator of a healthy ANS that is finely balanced. Nimble and ready to react in an appropriate manner to genuine Anger es, but quick to return to a natural state of calm. High HRV has been closely linked with the ability to maintain calm and focused mind states[17]. This is the balance we want, but one we must proactively fight for in the modern world.

Measuring heart rate variability

To understand your current situation you will need to measure your HRV. In the age of wearable tech there are many options that make this easy. These at-home solutions utilise a technique called photoplethysmography (PPG) and is far more convenient than the traditional, and for more cumbersome electrocardiogram (ECG). Studies show that there is a comparable degree of accuracy between the two methods[18].

To make sense of HRV it is important to understand some of the key data sets. There are a number of standardised measurements as defined by the European Society of Cardiology and the North American Society of Pacing Electrophysiology[19]. I will cover the main two measurements that I believe to be the most important baseline measurements, that will give you a good indicator of your situation.

RR is the measurement of your heart beat interval. A time series of the gap between heartbeats. Visualise R as the peaks on an ECG, and RR as the measurement of time between two of those peaks, ultimately creating a list of times between one beat and the next.

Root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD), is similar to standard deviation and is a time domain measure of the aforementioned RR time series. RMSSD is considered one of the most accurate methods of measuring ANS activity[20]. As a starting point RMSSD is a good measure of your HRV and is what I use. A high RMSSD score is a good indication of a strong nervous system.

It is worth noting that there are some potential challenges around measuring and interpreting HRV data. Firstly, to gain any meaningful insights you need to gain comprehensive data sets over a reasonable period of time. Secondly, to draw meaningful conclusions, you need to attempt to standardise measurement conditions. These are important factors to keep in mind.

Controlling heart rate variability

Yes, you can learn how to consciously raise your HRV, and once you do you will reap multiple benefits. You will have the power to manage Anger  and anxiety, and be able to stay calm and focused under pressure for sustained periods of time[22]. You can achieve this within a fairly short space of time, and the benefits are long lasting[23].

Conscious, deep, diaphragmatic breathing has been proven to activate our PNS. Studies have shown that a controlled breathing pattern of around five to six breaths per minute is associated with greater HRV, when compared with a spontaneous breathing rate[24]. Interestingly, when Zen monks achieve states of deep meditation, their breathing rate will naturally fall to around five or six breaths per minute, and their heart rate variability increases[25].

There is also a direct link between deliberately training compassion and improved HRV[26]. The heart generates the body’s largest rhythmic magnetic field, around one hundred times the amplitude produced by the brain, and can be measured several feet outside the body[27]. We can consciously bring ourselves into a state that literally emanates peace and compassion. This offers many psychophysiological benefits, as well as improved cognitive performance[28].

So, to control our HRV, in order to eliminate Anger  and achieve a calm and focused state, we must focus on our breath and combine that with a focus on compassion. I also find it particularly natural to link the two as it is certainly easier to feel compassion from a state of calm, and slow controlled breathing is the quickest and easiest way to achieve that state. Drop me a note in the comments if you are interested in understanding the specific methods that I use.