Background: Acute psychological stress elicits increases in heart rate (HR) and anxiety. Theories propose associations between HR, perceived HR, and anxiety during stress. However, anxiety is often measured as a unidimensional construct which limits a comprehensive understanding of these relationships. Objectives: This research explored whether HR reactivity or perceived HR change was more closely associated with cognitive and somatic anxiety during acute psychological stress. Design: Two laboratory-based studies were conducted. Methods: In a single laboratory session, healthy male (N = 71; study 1) and female (N = 70; study 2) university students completed three laboratory psychological stress tasks (counterbalanced), each with a preceding baseline. Heart rate, perceived HR change, and cognitive and somatic anxiety intensity and interpretation of anxiety symptoms were assessed immediately following each task. Data were aggregated across tasks. Results: Actual HR change was unrelated to anxiety intensity, but was associated with more debilitative interpretations of anxiety (study 2). Perceptions of HR change were consistently associated with greater intensity of cognitive (study 1) and somatic (study 1 and 2) anxiety. Conclusions: Perceived HR rather than actual HR is more closely associated with anxiety intensity during psychological stress. The findings have implications for stress management and the clinical treatment of anxiety symptoms.
Keywords: Acute psychological stress; anxiety interpretation; cognitive anxiety; heart rate; perceived heart rate; somatic anxiety.