Background: It is unclear from prior reports whether the relationships between self-ratings of anxiety or emotional stress and parasympathetic nervous system components of heart rate variability are independent of personality and cardiorespiratory fitness. We examined those relationships in a clinical setting prior to a standardized exercise test. Methods and results: Heart rate variability (HRV) was measured during 5 min of supine rest among 92 healthy men (N = 52) and women (N = 40) who had above-average cardiorespiratory fitness as indicated by peak oxygen uptake measured during grade-incremented treadmill exercise. HRV datasets were decomposed into low- frequency (LF; 0.05-0.15 Hz) and high-frequency (HF; 0.15-0.5 Hz) components using spectral analysis. Self-ratings of trait anxiety and perceived emotional stress during the past week were also assessed. Conclusions: There was an inverse relationship between perceived emotional stress during the past week and the normalized HF component of HRV (P = 0.038). This indicates a lower cardiac vagal component of HRV among men and women who perceived more stress. That relationship was independent of age, gender, trait anxiety, and cardiorespiratory fitness. It was also independent of heart rate; mean arterial blood pressure; and respiration rate, factors which can influence HRV and might be elevated among people reporting anxiety and perceived stress. We conclude that vagal modulation of heart period appears to be sensitive to the recent experience of persistent emotional stress, regardless of a person's level of physical fitness and disposition toward experiencing anxiety. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.
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