Interplay between state anxiety, heart rate variability, and cognition: An ex-Gaussian analysis of response times

Derek P. Spangler, Katherine R. Cox, Julian F. Thayer, Justin R. Brooks, Bruce H. Friedman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The present study employed an ex-Gaussian model of response times (RTs) to elucidate the cognitive processes related to experimentally induced state anxiety (SA) and vagally mediated heart rate variability (vmHRV), an indicator of adaptive responses in both cognitive and affective domains. Participants (n = 110) completed a dual task composed of (i) a flanker attention and (2) working memory load task, while SA was induced by threat of noise. Electrocardiography was measured during the dual task and during four baseline periods in order to calculate vmHRV. RTs on the flanker task were fit to an ex-Gaussian distribution, which estimated three RT parameters: mu (Gaussian mean), sigma (Gaussian SD), and tau (combination of exponential mean and SD). First, findings indicate that threat of noise was associated with reductions in mu and tau, suggesting that SA might improve attention and motor responding. Second, higher resting vmHRV was associated with lower tau (averaged across conditions) and stronger threat-related decreases in tau. Third, intra-individual decreases in vmHRV were accompanied by concomitant decreases in tau. These findings support roles for trait and state vagal control in guiding adaptive anxiety-related (and anxiety-unrelated) attentional responses. Findings are consistent with extant theories that emphasize functional interrelations among emotion, cognition, and vagal function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-70
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Jan 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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