Prolonged Non-metabolic Heart Rate Variability Reduction as a Physiological Marker of Psychological Stress in Daily Life

Bart Verkuil, Jos F. Brosschot, Marieke S. Tollenaar, Richard D. Lane, Julian F. Thayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Background: Prolonged cardiac activity that exceeds metabolic needs can be detrimental for somatic health. Psychological stress could result in such “additional cardiac activity.” Purpose: In this study, we examined whether prolonged additional reductions in heart rate variability (AddHRVr) can be measured in daily life with an algorithm that filters out changes in HRV that are purely due to metabolic demand, as indexed by movement, using a brief calibration procedure. We tested whether these AddHRVr periods were related to worry, stress, and negative emotions. Methods: Movement and the root of the mean square of successive differences (RMSSD) in heart rate were measured during a calibration phase and the subsequent 24 h in 32 participants. Worry, stress, explicit and implicit emotions were assessed hourly using smartphones. The Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale and resting HRV were used to account for individual differences. During calibration, person-specific relations between movement and RMSSD were determined. The 24-h data were used to detect prolonged periods (i.e., 7.5 min) of AddHRVr. Results: AddHRVr periods were associated with worrying, with decreased explicit positive affect, and with increased tension, but not with the frequency of stressful events or implicit emotions. Only in people high in emotional awareness and high in resting HRV did changes in AddHRVr covary with changes in explicit emotions. Conclusions: The algorithm can be used to capture prolonged reductions in HRV that are not due to metabolic needs. This enables the real-time assessment of episodes of potentially detrimental cardiac activity and its psychological determinants in daily life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)704-714
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of Behavioral Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Emotional awareness
  • Heart rate variability
  • Metabolic
  • Perseverative cognition
  • Physical activity
  • Worry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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