Regulating interpersonal stress: the link between heart-rate variability, physical exercise and social perspective taking under stress

Stress. 2021 Apr 5;1-10. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2021.1907339. Online ahead of print.


Social interactions can be stressful, especially if they involve provocation or ambiguity. At the same time, such interactions necessitate social cognition. The question thus arises how stress affects social cognition and how personality attributes modulate this effect. The aim of the current study was to investigate the link between emotional reactivity, physical exercise, and social cognition under stress. As a measure of social cognition, we used spontaneous perspective taking, i.e., the degree to which participants represented the mental state of another agent. Studying young female participants, we investigated how physiological regulation, measured through resting heart-rate variability, is related to spontaneous social perspective taking under stress, and to predicted anger in an ambiguous social scenario. When controlling for resting heart rate, vagally mediated heart-rate variability was negatively correlated with the effect of stress on perspective taking, indicating that good physiological regulation supports social cognition under stress. Further, participants who reported to exercise at least once a week showed higher perspective taking under stress than less active participants. Finally, we found tentative evidence for participants who exercised regularly to show reduced predicted anger in response to an ambiguous provocation. Our findings suggest that good physiological regulation and regular physical exercise support social cognition under stress.

Keywords: Social cognition; exercise; heart rate variability; perspective taking; stress.