Heart Rate Variability as an Index of Regulated Emotional Responding

Con­tin­u­ing with the theme of a Week of Sci­ence spon­sored by Just Sci­ence, we will high­light some of the key points in: Appel­hans BM, Lueck­en LJ. Heart Rate Vari­abil­i­ty as an Index of Reg­u­lat­ed Emo­tion­al Respond­ing. Review of Gen­er­al Psy­chol­o­gy. 2006;10:229–240.

Defin­ing Heart Rate Variability
Effec­tive emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion depends on being able to flex­i­bly adjust your phys­i­o­log­i­cal response to a chang­ing environment.

… heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV) is a mea­sure of the con­tin­u­ous inter­play between sym­pa­thet­ic and parasym­pa­thet­ic influ­ences on heart rate that yields infor­ma­tion about auto­nom­ic flex­i­bil­i­ty and there­by rep­re­sents the capac­i­ty for reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion­al responding.”

HRV reflects the degree to which car­diac activ­i­ty can be mod­u­lat­ed to meet chang­ing sit­u­a­tion­al demands.”

The sym­pa­thet­ic (SNS) and parasym­pa­thet­ic (PNS) branch­es of the auto­nom­ic ner­vous sys­tem (ANS) antag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly influ­ence the lengths of time between con­sec­u­tive heart­beats. Faster heart rates, which can be due to increased SNS and/or low­er PNS activ­i­ty, cor­re­spond to a short­er inter­beat inter­val while slow­er heart rates have a longer inter­beat inter­val, which can be attrib­uted to increased PNS and/or decreased SNS activity.

The fre­quen­cy-based HRV analy­ses are based on the fact that the vari­a­tions in heart rate pro­duced by SNS and PNS activ­i­ty occur at dif­fer­ent speeds, or fre­quen­cies. SNS is slow act­ing and medi­at­ed by nor­ep­i­neph­rine while PNS influ­ence is fast act­ing and medi­at­ed by acetylcholine.

Phys­i­o­log­ic Under­pin­nings of HRV

Breath­ing air into the lungs tem­porar­i­ly gates off the influ­ence of the parasym­pa­thet­ic influ­ence on heart rate, pro­duc­ing a heart rate increase (see Berntson, Caciop­po, & Quigley, 1993). Breath­ing air out of the lungs rein­states parasym­pa­thet­ic influ­ence on heart rate, result­ing in a heart rate decrease. This rhyth­mic oscil­la­tion in heart rate pro­duced by res­pi­ra­tion is called res­pi­ra­to­ry sinus arrhyth­mia (Bernar­di, Por­ta, Gabut­ti, Spicuz­za, & Sleight, 2001; Berntson et al., 1993).

The cen­tral auto­nom­ic net­work (CAN) assists emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion by adjust­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal arousal to appro­pri­ate­ly match the exter­nal and inter­nal envi­ron­ments. The CAN con­sists of cor­ti­cal, lim­bic, and brain­stem com­po­nents. Its out­put is trans­mit­ted to the sinoa­tri­al node of the heart, among oth­er organs.

HRV reflects the moment-to-moment out­put of the CAN and, by proxy, an indi­vid­u­al’s capac­i­ty to gen­er­ate reg­u­lat­ed phys­i­o­log­i­cal respons­es in the con­text of emo­tion­al expres­sion (Thay­er & Lane, 2000; Thay­er & Siegle, 2002).

Psy­chophys­i­o­log­i­cal The­o­ries of HRV
Two major the­o­ries causal­ly relate auto­nom­ic flex­i­bil­i­ty, rep­re­sent­ed by HRV, and the capac­i­ty for reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion­al responding:

  1. Poly­va­gal The­o­ry: an evo­lu­tion­ary expla­na­tion that the ANS devel­oped in stages to deal with changes in the envi­ron­ment and respond effec­tive­ly. The last com­po­nent devel­oped, the ven­tral vagus com­plex, phys­i­cal­ly con­nects with the facial mus­cles, voice pro­duc­tion, and oth­er social­ly impor­tant behav­iors, which cre­ates a phys­i­cal con­nec­tion between the heart and emo­tion­al expression.
  2. Neu­ro­vis­cer­al Inte­gra­tion The­o­ry: an inte­gra­tive expla­na­tion that evo­lu­tion­ary forces led to the devel­op­ment of a rapid­ly respond­ing vagus nerve to sup­port appro­pri­ate emo­tion­al expres­sion and reg­u­la­tion through con­nec­tions with the cor­tex, lim­bic sys­tem, and brain­stem. By inhibit­ing oth­er poten­tial respons­es through synap­tic activ­i­ty in the brain and vagal activ­i­ty in the body, the CAN acts as a “neu­ro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal com­mand cen­ter gov­ern­ing cog­ni­tive, behav­ioral, and phys­i­o­log­i­cal ele­ments into reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion states”.

Both the­o­ries pre­sent­ed above are sim­i­lar in that they (a) spec­i­fy a crit­i­cal role for parasym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly medi­at­ed inhi­bi­tion of auto­nom­ic arousal in emo­tion­al expres­sion and reg­u­la­tion and (b) main­tain that HRV mea­sures are infor­ma­tive about individuals’ capac­i­ty for this aspect of reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion­al responding.

Empir­i­cal Research With HRV

  • Low HRV is an inde­pen­dent risk fac­tor for sev­er­al neg­a­tive car­dio­vas­cu­lar outcomes
  • Low HRV is a proxy for under­ly­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease processes
  • High­er lev­els of rest­ing HRV have been asso­ci­at­ed with effec­tive cop­ing strategies
  • Atten­tion con­trol is asso­ci­at­ed with high­er HRV
  • Patients with gen­er­al­ized anx­i­ety dis­or­der show low­er HRV than controls
  • Low HRV has been asso­ci­at­ed with depression

Sum­ma­ry, Future Direc­tions, and Conclusions
“HRV is emerg­ing as an objec­tive mea­sure of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion­al respond­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it relates to social process­es and men­tal health.”

Fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion should attempt to elu­ci­date those con­texts in which the auto­nom­ic flex­i­bil­i­ty rep­re­sent­ed by greater HRV is par­tic­u­lar­ly adap­tive, as well as sit­u­a­tions in which greater HRV may be mal­adap­tive. Although the­o­rists and researchers have empha­sized the impor­tance of parasym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly medi­at­ed HRV in reg­u­lat­ed emo­tion­al respond­ing, the rel­a­tive con­tri­bu­tion of sym­pa­thet­ic reg­u­la­tion of the heart has not yet been clarified.”

Poten­tial clin­i­cal appli­ca­tions of HRV also exist, as increas­ing an individual’s capac­i­ty for inhibito­ry emo­tion reg­u­la­tion through HRV biofeed­back (Lehrer et al., 2003) may have ther­a­peu­tic impli­ca­tions for mood, anx­i­ety, and impulse con­trol disorders.”

Unlike oth­er psy­chophys­i­o­log­i­cal vari­ables, HRV pro­vides infor­ma­tion regard­ing both PNS and SNS activ­i­ty, there­by per­mit­ting infer­ences about both inhibito­ry and exci­ta­to­ry process­es in emo­tion regulation.”


  1. Kostya on November 5, 2008 at 9:59

    It would be inter­est­ing to know details

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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