Anxiety and autonomic flexibility: a cardiovascular approach

Biol Psychol. 1998 Nov;49(3):303-23. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0511(98)00051-9.


Autonomic characteristics of panickers, blood phobics, and nonanxious controls were compared with a variety of cardiovascular measures, including spectral analysis of the cardiac inter-beat interval time series (derived from the electrocardiogram). Responses to laboratory stressors (shock avoidance and cold face stress) of 16 participants who reported recent occurrences of frequent severe panic attacks, 15 participants who reported strong somatic reactions and fainting to the sight of blood, and 15 controls, were recorded. Results suggested distinct autonomic patterns among the three groups. Across conditions, panickers displayed the highest heart rates (HR) coupled with the least HR variability, which indicates low levels of cardiac vagal tone. Blood phobics showed more vagally mediated HR variability than panickers, with a significant association between cardiac rate and mean arterial pressure. Controls generally showed the most HR variability and 'spectral reserve' (a quality that indicates flexible responsivity). Results are discussed in the context of traditional models of anxiety and autonomic activity in contrast to contemporary notions of stability and change in biological systems.

Publication types

  • Corrected and Republished Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart / innervation*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurocirculatory Asthenia / physiopathology
  • Neurocirculatory Asthenia / psychology
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Panic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Panic Disorder / psychology
  • Phobic Disorders / physiopathology
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Students / psychology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology*