How the emWave 2 Manages My Anxiety on the Road

How a Box the Size of a Deck of Cards Keeps my Anxiety in Check (emWave)[This post discusses medical science, but remember that I’m not a doctor yet. I recommend the emWave 2 highly and am not aware of any medical downside based on personal experience, but I’m sure someone out there has found something wrong with it. So do your research and talk to your own doctor before making any medical decisions!]

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I’ve written before about the anxiety I felt when I first started living in my car. Loneliness, fear of police knocking on my door, and freezing temperatures took a toll on my psyche early on. I felt a generalized sense of anxiety throughout my day that occasionally intensified into panic attacks.

This was, of course, on top of the stresses I already felt as a medical student: astronomical debt, impressing my attendings every second I am in the hospital, finding time to study for challenging tests, and planning my future while not even knowing where I’ll be for my next rotation. As I got more comfortable living in my car, my anxiety eventually returned to the baseline level I’ve come to know and love after three years in medical school, but it was still a burden.

Every medical student learns some way to cope with the stress of school, and every vandweller figures out ways to treat their anxiety while living on the road. I don’t think I would have made it this far with my sanity still intact if it weren’t for a tiny grey box smaller than a deck of cards.

It’s called an emWave 2…

…and I’ve been using it before I even got accepted to medical school. This compact little device measures the distance between your heartbeats and then assesses the variability (the changing space between beats).

The autonomic (“automatic”) nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). Increased heart rate variability (HRV) is associated with increased parasympathetic tone and decreased sympathetic tone, leading to a state of relaxed focus. The emWave®2 from HeartMath trains you to find that state through heart-focused breathing and feelings of gratitude.
Hold on, don’t click the back button yet. I know that sounds like hippie mumbo-jumbo, but there’s  great science behind the emWave 2. Low HRV is seen in patients with social anxiety disorder and people who perceive more stress—this device can help mitigate the effects of those. It’s also been shown to be a great tool to use on top of traditional treatments for disorders like PTSD, and may even be more effective than using SSRIs to treat depression.

Regardless of the science and research behind HRV, all I can really tell you is my personal experience training it. It has illuminated a deep connection between my physiology and my mental health.

How the emWave 2 manages my anxiety

Every night, after I crawl into my cot and turn my phone on airplane mode, I put my thumb on the sensor and lay on my back. I turn it on, set a timer for 5 minutes, and breathe with controlled, purposeful breaths.

After closing my eyes, I focus all my attention on my chest and imagine that the air I’m breathing is filling and then leaving my heart. Occasionally I repeat phrases in my head, such as “breathe in, breathe out”. If I’m really feeling stressed, I find that remembering a time when I was really grateful for something helps dramatically. The emWave 2 has a tone and colored lights signifying how variable your heart rate is, so once I hear the tone I know that whatever I’m doing is working.

This device doesn’t just relax you before bed, however. It is an HRV trainer, a key point I often forget. The point of the emWave 2 is to help you find techniques that balance your specific autonomic nervous system so that you can use them during the day when you feel stressed. Walking into a big test? Do your breathing. Bozo cut you off on the road? Do your breathing.

Worth every penny

When I bought my emWave 2, I looked at it as an investment in my future and well being. I had to do this because the price for products on the HeartMath site is a little higher than I think I would have spent if I was looking at it as just another experiment. The emWave 2 runs about $200, while the Inner Balance ear clips that plug into your iPhone or iPad is $129. There’s also a new bluetooth ear clip for $159. HeartMath periodically has sales with pretty significant discounts, and every once in awhile there will be discount codes floating around.

Even with prices in the triple digits, however, I would gladly buy my emWave 2 at full price again any day. When used consistently, I am able to bring myself back to focus in just a few deep, heart-focused breaths. My mind doesn’t race as much, I’m more relaxed in social situations, and I find myself enjoying life more. I’m able to better appreciate vandwelling and medical school for the adventures that they are.

Of all the biohacks I have tried, the emWave®2 from HeartMath by far has the biggest impact. I’ve tested its effect several times by stopping for short periods of time and then restarting, and every time I notice how much better I feel when I use it daily. It’s the best natural way I know to keep calm and truly enjoy the challenges of everyday life, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who needs help managing stress.

Have you heard of the emWave 2 before? Would you give it a try?

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