HRV, “Fight or Flight” and Me

This is not me but it’s a stock photo of a black guy that sort of looks like me.

I will never forget my breaking point. I’ve had a few in my life but this one was the one that left me in the Ohio State University hospital for a bit.

It was the summer of 2014 and I was over two years into my role as the CMO of menswear startup Mizzen+Main. Despite the positive national press and traction with a dozen or so high visibility athletes, we were still bootstrapping. And that meant zero salary and even fewer benefits. But, hey we were making progress. Just two years earlier, few in our target demographic wanted version one of our shirts. And unfortunately, we didn’t have the funds to pursue performance marketing in the golden era of Facebook advertising. If I wanted to personally stay afloat, I had to get creative. But that was only a small part of the problem; I had to get even more creative to keep selling products without advertising.

At this point in time, I was working three jobs with no family money or savings to fall back on. I had a day job at Startups.co under the tutelage of a few experienced entrepreneurs. That salary was just $30,000 but the founders let me use an office for Mizzen+Main work. And that I did. I often left that suburban office after 9:30 PM. That is, until our daughter Adriana Brooks was born, that summer. You may get the picture by now. Things got harder before they got easier.

Aside from my full-time role with Mizzen and my full-time role working for Startups.co, I spent a lot of time working to pay bills until the company that I owned could do that for us. It was around that time that an athlete recognized my ability and asked me to handle his marketing contracts. My family desperately needed any opportunity, so he hired me as his first agent. His existing contracts were expiring soon so it gave me a much needed opportunity to secure more lucrative ones. There I was, working relentlessly to close the delta between my bank account and my obligations. By the Summer of 2015, I signed him to $18 million worth of contracts with Reebok, Nike, Oakley, Rogue, and Advocare. But even that part didn’t go as planned. The sports business world is relentless and ruthless.

Over that time, I leaned heavily on whiskey, sleep deprivation, and recklessness to make sense of things. My daily agenda was counterproductive at best, self-destructive at worst. But like many entrepreneurs in my situation – if I didn’t succeed, someone with my last name was going to go without dinner. And that expression wasn’t hyperbole. My wife’s role afforded us health insurance and little extra money after taxes, tuition, and childcare costs. If you know anything about families of four, they can be expensive.

Fight or flight. During this time, I learned a lot about myself. And I also learned that I’d have to own the improvement of my circumstances if I wanted to fix things. But first, the vasospasms and the trip to Ohio State’s medical center.

Those vasospasms were a painful experience, literally and figuratively. I learned for the first time in my life that mental and emotional stresses could do physiological damage. Stress had accumulated to such a point that my body had begun to react violently. That summer – I thought that I was going to die.

I lost a lot over those next few years: health, valuable relationships, opportunities, and time. I retreated into myself and spent an exorbitant amount of time working for and learning from any business leader who’d listen. Of the several conversations that I had over the years that helped me, it was a chat with fellow eCommerce founder – Jonathan Poma – that I can credit with helping me to find an approach to wellness. These conversations allowed me to begin digging a tunnel beneath the walls that I built for myself.

The keys to recovery. It’s nearly five years later and I don’t take a single prescription. Instead, I balanced a life of extremes with the only decision that can make a difference – drastic action. The goal was simple: target my central nervous system and defeat my perpetual “fight or flight” mode.

Entrepreneurs and high-risk professionals encounter an extraordinary cognitive load. The stressful events on a monthly basis can cause lasting damage. In these occurrences, the amygdala sends a distressed pulse to your hypothalamus. This area of your brain determines if your automatic nervous system will respond with fight or flight. This is a layman’s phrase for the behavior of the sympathetic part of the nervous system. The sympathetic system accelerates the fight or flight response, supplying your body with the energy and tension to respond to perceived danger – mental, physical, or emotional.

After an extended period, one’s sympathetic nervous system becomes the default. Your ANS is in fight or flight. When the ANS is taxed, one’s physiology changes to include: speeding heartbeat, higher pulse rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, sharpened senses, and a flood of blood sugar. To account for this, I was advised to address an overwhelmed nervous system. I needed to decrease physiological stress enough to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – a calming agent that returns the body to its intended tolerance.

The pursuit of a higher HRV

A slow and steady improvement: Nov 2018 to May 2019 | Source: Whoop

Stress and mental health matters are rarely discussed in public. With measures like heart rate variability being made available through wearables and devices like Core, the quantification of stress on the human body has helped to begin a conversation. The quantification of bodily stress has shortened the feedback loop, influencing lifestyle changes that may ultimately contribute to the measure and the capacity to balance.

There are a number of variables that determine the health of your automatic nervous system. In a 2016 medical paper, this excerpt:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a non-invasive method used to obtain valuable data concerning physiological changes that occur in the response to physical activity. Findings resulting from multiple studies (7) suggest that HRV parameters are relevant in the analysis of stress that the body experiences during training and to increase insight into physiological recovery after training. Referring to athletes, changes in the patterns of their ANS (automatic nervous system) reflected by altered HRV may serve as useful parameters for managing their physical fatigue and establishing their exercise intensity.

Over the past year, I committed to several changes that had a net positive effect on my ability to handle stress. This improvement was reflected in a higher average HRV as the weeks progressed.

  • A focused, lower carb diet: by measuring macronutrients, reducing carbohydrates, and lowering inflammation.
  • Complete fitness: mobility, endurance, strength, and restorative exercises to improve blood flow and reduce resting heart rate (RHR) and average heart rate (AHR). This includes better sleep.
  • CBD for pain relief: to reduce joint inflammation, optimizing for physiological recovery. And to reduce anxiety and oxidation.
  • No alcohol: By removing alcohol and some carbohydrates from my diet, it helped to accelerate the decrease of inflammation and oxidation. And in turn, my physical capacity and cardiovascular fitness improved.
  • Frequent meditation: With the help of Core, meditation sessions have helped to improve my HRV by 15-25% above that day’s baseline.

Mindfulness has long been an aim for enlightened individuals who seek to mend mental health issues. Whether that’s depression, anxiety, or crippling stress – meditation has always been a recommended practice. And frankly, I resisted it. Its effects were impossible to quantify before products like Core.

One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned in entrepreneurship involves two principles: (1) cognitive load and (2) the law of elasticity of Hooke’s Law. The strain of an object is proportional to the stress applied to it. That lesson is simple: maintain as much elasticity as possible. You’ll need it. For those dealing with the stresses of leadership or building things from scratch, self-improvement should be a priority. We are often overextended. By addressing our own capacity to endure – we leave room to address the unpredictable. Or help a peer, friend, or colleague do the same.

Meditation has become one of many solutions for me and as result, my mindfulness and calm have improved. I now praise the benefits of meditation, along with the other lifestyle changes that I’ve made over the years. To be honest, it leaves me wondering how I would have handled the rigors of 2014 with the tools that I have today. For me, it all began with a numerical measure (HRV).

The quantification of our capacity to physically and mentally recover is a relatively new and important innovation. I will never forget my breaking point but I’ve certainly learned from it. It’s an enduring lesson that our primary role as a professional is to be able to continue. Use the tools and practices that point you in that direction, you will be happy that you did.

Web Smith is the founder of 2PM Inc. He is a husband and father of two and enjoys training for long periods of time. He is the fourth best athlete in his house.