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Indices of Physiological Dysregulation: Manipulation of State Worry Results in Decreased HRV among Trait Worriers

Indices of Physiological Dysregulation: Manipulation of State Worry Results in Decreased HRV among Trait Worriers

Michael Backora


Indices of Physiological Dysregulation: Manipulation of State Worry Results in Decreased HRV among Trait Worriers
Backora, M.S., Taylor, D.L., Abbott, R.L., Kraft, J.D., White, E.J., Frosio, K.E., & Grant, D.M. (2016).


Worry is excessive and uncontrollable negative thoughts about a number of topics and is the key symptom associated with anxiety (Borkovec et al., 1983). Research has focused on the role of physiological arousal in the development and maintenance of worry symptoms, although most studies have been on the long-term effects of worry. One promising measure for this area of research is Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is the measurement of the interval of time that lapses between consecutive heartbeats, and is a physiological indicator of emotion regulation (Magagnin et al. 2010), such that increased HRV typically represents adaptive coping or regulated physiology implicated by emotions. The current study will investigate the effects of both state and trait worry on HRV to further inform our current models of anxiety, as further research is needed to understand worry’s effects in the short term. We hypothesized that due to a manipulation of state worry, the high worry individuals would show a greater decrease in HRV compared to the low worriers, indicating reduced emotion regulation.


Thirty-five students from a large Midwestern university were recruited using SONA. The Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ; Meyer et al., 1991) was used as a pre-screener to form: high and low (scores over 62 and under 37) worry groups. Participants were attached to ECG electrodes and then completed two versions of the letter Flankers task (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1979), one standard task and one manipulation task. In the manipulation, participants were falsely informed that a fixation cue (+) would change when the attached electrodes (x) detected a change in their arousal. The false arousal cue appeared on 40% of trials and was counterbalanced across participants.


A 2 Worry Group (High, Low) by 2 Condition (Control, Worry Manipulation) mixed ANOVA was used to evaluate the effect of the manipulation on HRV. Results revealed a non-significant main effect of worry group, F(1,33) = .13 p = .72, and Condition F(1,33) = .63 p =.54. However, there was a significant interaction between Condition and Worry, F(1,33) = 3.48, p


The current data did not fully support our hypothesis. However, the interaction suggests that the combined effects of trait worry and a state manipulation had a significant effect on physiological arousal for high worriers only, which lends support to our hypothesis. Limitations include that there was a small sample size, which was comprised only of females. Behavioral data would be valuable to further document the combined effects of state and trait worry. The high worriers displayed no differences in HRV, this may indicate they may require more physiological resources to regulate their arousal compared to low worriers. We also theorized that the high worry group may have experienced a decrease in HRV due to attentional resources becoming consumed after the participant was presented with the knowledge of their arousal, which was supported. This suggests that worry alone did not have an impact on HRV, but that worry combined with negative information about body arousal may be perceived as a threat, and impact their arousal. These data highlight the need for more research to understand speeded changes in arousal associated with worry, and provide more evidence to findings by Andor and colleagues (2009) that information about body arousal may incite a worry episode.