So what does this low HRV mean for the recovering alcoholic?
I have explained this to show that HRV is directly connected to areas of the the brain implicated in stress and emotion regulation.
If, via recovery practices, we can still our beating heart, become serene as well as clean, it will have neuroplastic effects on our brain and the regulation of emotion and stress.
Equally if we meditate and alter the functioning of areas implicated in this study such as areas of the medial PFC and cingulate gyrus we improve our control over our heart. Ultimately if we can learn to relieve the inherent distress at the heart of addiction we can recovery function of not only the heart but also of areas in the brain which interact with the heart in producing heart rate variability.
So ultimately we need only to know how to quell a distressed heart via prayer, meditation, loving others.
If we can do so, we improve our emotion and stress regulation.
But do we need to do this if we have been in recovery long term?
Let me give you an example of allostasis in action.
In an allostatic system like addiction there is stress dysregulation coupled with reward dysfunction (I believe there is a pre-morbid allostasis in those addicts who have experienced abuse, trauma and insecure attachment also which means there is a stress and emotion dysregulation from an early age which leads to a heightened reward sensitivity which means we start to regulate negative emotions from an early age via impulsively using or consuming stuff we really really like, or seem to like more than healthy people, to make ourselves feel better).
These adolescents at risk also have low HRV and the effects of alcohol have a pronounced effect on HRV.
This sets the chain of addiction in action from the start for many addicts.
So when we decide we want something this leads to a feeling of pathological wanting and then needing simply because we have altered reward systems as they are linked to our “out of kilter” stress systems .
Buying something in the store, if thwarted, soon becomes a life and death like struggle. Ever had that feeling?
I remember a 75 year old recovering person with 30 odd years of recovery sharing in a meeting how she went to a store to get something, to find that something wasn’t there, so she was instructed to drive somewhere else to get that something, and when she got there they didn’t have it, so she had an argument with them and then with her husband in the car, then off to another store which did not have the something either, then back home on the internet, found a online store that stocked the something and ordered it.
It arrived the next day because she paid a lot of money for it to arrive the very next day! When it arrived she found that she had not only completely forgot about ordering the something but did not really want the something even. So off she sloped to apologise to her husband for being so emotionally abusive and immature over the something on her way to the Post Office to post back the something that she never really wanted in the first place!!?
This is also my head still, even after a few years of recovery. It is not as bad it was, by a long shot! It does, however, get distressed, I become impulsive and want, need, that thing now!!! On occasion.
So I think this is one area recovery people always need to be aware of. Wanting stuff.
As it can lead to pathological wanting fairly quickly – then people get in the way of those things and we get angry, frustrated, distressed, our emotions overwhelm us or we are mean to our fellow human beings all because they are getting in the way of the thing I really really want.. NEED God damn it!…
We lose our emotional sobriety.
When we have either got it, regardless of the the human or emotional cost, we often find we do not want it or never really wanted it…that much….
Not compared to the cost of getting it!?
How do we solve this problem? We let go, we calm down, talk to someone, express our feelings, try to establish a transient homeostasis, let our stress systems subside and start again, trying to managing these chaotic brain systems.
If you are like that you have a low HRV and a stress/emotion regulation problem and probably always will.
But if can be manged and it can vastly improve. Then one day we learn that it is in living with our hearts forefront to our decisions and not our heads that brings lasting everyday happiness.
That is why in recovery we travel from our at times over zealous heads to our hearts. The wisdom and direction and basis of our decision making lives their not in our heads. It is not to say we do not use these wondrous instruments but we incorporate the help of our hearts in activating the reasoning of the brain.
Solve the heart issue, and the rest comes.
Neural structures associated with HRV
Over the past several years however a number of human neuroimaging studies have appeared in which researchers have explicitly examined the brain structures associated with HRV. In the present paper we provide a meta-analysis of eight published studies in which HRV has been related to functional brain activity using either PET or fMRI
The goal of this meta-analysis was to identify areas that were consistently associated with HRV.
In the overall analyses three regions show significant activations One region in the medial PFC (MPFC) is the right pregenual cingulate (BA 24/32).
Another MPFC region is the right subgenual cingulate (BA 25).
The third region is the left sublenticular extended amygdala/ventral striatum (SLEA). This region extends into the basolateral amygdalar complex, and also covers the superior amygdala (central nucleus) and extends into the ventral striatum.
More generally, the pgACC/rmPFC correlation with HRV in our meta-analysis suggests thatthis region is part, and the most reliably activated part in studies to date, of a descending “visceromotor” system that controls the autonomic nervous system and possibly other responses (neuroendocrine) based on emotional context.
The meta-analysis provides supportfor the idea that HRV may index the degree to which a mPFC-guided “core integration” system is integrated with the brainstem nuclei that directly regulate the heart. Thus these results support Claude Bernard’s idea that the vagus serves as a structural and functional link between the brain and the heart. We have proposed that this neural system essentially operates as a “super-system” that integrates the activity in perceptual, motor, interoceptive, and memory systems into gestalt representations of situations and likely adaptive responses. These findings suggest that HRV may index important organism functions associated with adaptability and health.”
1. THAYER, J. F., AHS, F., FREDRIKSON, M., SOLLERS, J. J., & WAGER, T. D. (2012). A meta-analysis of heart rate variability and neuroimaging studies: Implications for heart rate variability as a marker of stress and health.Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 36(2), 747-756.