Date of Award


Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sandra T. Sigmon

Second Committee Member

Lira K. Yoon

Third Committee Member

Shannon McCoy


Research has uncovered a strong association between markers of physical and mental health with the physiological variable of heart rate variability. Researchers have conceptualized HRV as a non-invasive marker of the dynamic relationship between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (e.g., sympathetic and parasympathetic). Researchers posit that HRV occurs as a result of the co-activation, coinhibition, or combination of both of these processes within the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (Bernston et al., 1991). The medical literature has demonstrated that low baseline levels of HRV are associated with various negative physical health outcomes including: diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain after adjusting for known risk factors (Arone, Mackintosh, Rosenbaum, Leibel, & Hirsch, 1995; Dekker et al., 2000; Lindmark, Wiklund, Bjerle, & Eriksson, 2003; Maver, Struel, & Accetto, 2004). In addition, low levels of HRV have been shown to confer increased risk of myocardial infarction, and death from both coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure (Dekker et al., 2000; Tsuji et al., 1996). The psychological literature has also revealed negative associations between HRV and various mood (Agelink, Boz, Ullrich, & Andrich, 2002) and anxiety disorders (Friedman & Thayer, 1998; Melzig, Weike, Hamm, & Thayer, 2009).

These findings have led to the development of the perseverative cognition hypothesis (PCH), which posits that the association between low baseline levels of HRV and negative physical health outcomes is mediated by the influence of various forms of perseverative cognition (e.g., rumination and worry). In the PCH, forms of perseverative cognition, specifically rumination and worry, are involved in the production and maintenance of a range of physiological sequelae, including a decrease in HRV. According to the PCH model, chronic activation of these physiological sequelae can lead to negative long-term health consequences such as arterial and cardiovascular disease (Brosschot, Gerin, & Thayer, 2006).

In the current study, the relationship between HRV and markers of physical and mental health were examined in a non-clinical, undergraduate sample. Participants engaged in an arithmetic task that was designed to induce stress. HRV data was gathered before, during, and after the arithmetic task (stressor) in order to assess baseline, reactivity, and recovery. Self-reported anxious mood, depressed mood and stress ratings were also assessed before, during, and after the stressor. Participants completed additional questionnaires following the lab visit to assess for trait levels of perseverative cognition, mental health symptoms, and physical health symptoms.

Results revealed the following: 1) significant negative correlations between baseline levels of HRV and perceived stress and GAD diagnostic status; 2) significant correlations between HRV reactivity and: worry, GAD diagnostic status, and PILL total scores; 3) significant correlations between HRV recovery and PILL total scores; 4) perseverative cognition and mental health variables predicted HRV levels at baseline; 5) physical health variables predicted HRV reactivity; and 6) that participants high and low in levels of worry differed significantly on measures of HRV at baseline, reactivity, and recovery.