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Association Between Trait Anxiety and Vagal Tone, Withdrawal, and Recovery

  • Alliant International University, San Diego, United States


High levels of trait anxiety (TA) as measured by the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) have consistently been shown to be associated with low cardiac vagal control. While the current literature illustrates that TA is associated with reduced autonomic regulation; dynamic measures of vagal activity as assessed by vagal withdrawal and recovery in response to a stressor. In healthy individuals, vagal response to stressors may have a higher association with TA than resting vagal tone. Results of the present study are expected to show that TA is negatively associated with vagal tone at rest, vagal withdrawal, and vagal recovery. TA was measured by using the STAI. Baseline vagal tone was operationalized as the natural log of High Frequency (LnHF) component of HRV, vagal withdrawal as the difference in LnHF between baseline and stressor, and vagal recovery as the difference in LnHF between recovery and stressor. Interbeat interval data were collected continuously during a 10-min resting baseline condition, a 4 min mental stress task, and a 5 min recovery period. Standardized percentile scores of TA based on STAI normative data were utilized for correlational analysis. Preliminary data (n = 15) show vagal withdrawal (r = -.60, p = .025) and vagal recovery (r = -.61, p = .021) to be significantly associated with TA standardized percentiles. Unlike previous studies, however, vagal tone at rest was not significantly related to TA (r = - .15, p = 0.58). Results indicate that greater withdrawal and greater recovery are associated with lower levels of trait anxiety. These results suggest that vagal withdrawal and recovery stress profiles support emerging findings as potentially stronger markers of parasympathetic health than resting vagal tone. Further research should explore the differential role of vagal withdrawal and recovery compared to resting vagal tone in both healthy and clinical populations.
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