Relationships between respiratory sinus arrhythmia and stress in college students

  • J. FanningEmail author
  • J. L. Silfer
  • H. Liu
  • L. Gauvin
  • K. J. Heilman
  • S. W. Porges
  • W. J. Rejeski


The purpose of this study was to examine the relationships between university students’ respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) profiles and both retrospective and momentary ratings of stress. Participants were undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory health science course (N = 64). Participants provided RSA data at rest (tonic) and following an orthostatic challenge (phasic), completed the 10-item Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and completed 6 daily ecological momentary assessments (EMA) of stress for 1 week. Higher tonic RSA was associated with lower perceived stress assessed via PSS and average EMA responses. Those with higher tonic RSA did not differ in their experience of stress across the week, whereas those with lower tonic RSA experienced increased stress across the week, and these trajectories varied as a function of phasic responses. These findings suggest a need for greater emphasis on behavioral strategies for maintaining and enhancing autonomic nervous system health among college students.


Health Stress Assessment Autonomic nervous system 



This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

J. Fanning, J. L. Silfer, H. Liu, L. Gauvin, K. J. Heilman, S. W. Porges and W. J. Rejeski declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights and informed consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000. Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.


  1. Ashare, R. L., Sinha, R., Lampert, R., Weinberger, A. H., Anderson, G. M., Lavery, M. E., et al. (2012). Blunted vagal reactivity predicts stress-precipitated tobacco smoking. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 220, 259–268. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Balzarotti, S., Biassoni, F., Colombo, B., & Ciceri, M. R. (2017). Cardiac vagal control as a marker of emotion regulation in healthy adults: A review. Biological Psychology. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Beauchaine, T. P., & Thayer, J. F. (2015). Heart rate variability as a transdiagnostic biomarker of psychopathology. International Journal of Psychophysiology. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Byrne, E. A., Fleg, J. L., Vaitkevicius, P. V., Wright, J., & Porges, S. W. (1996). Role of aerobic capacity and body mass index in the age-associated decline in heart rate variability. Journal of Applied Physiology, 81, 743–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chaudhuri, A., Ray, M., Hazra, S., Goswami, A., & Bera, S. (2016). Correlation of perceived stress with blood group A and O among medical students and its effect on lipid profile in a medical college of eastern India. Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine, 16, 57. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24, 385–396. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Cohen, S., & Williamson, G. (1988). Perceived Stress in a Probability Sample of the United States. In S. Spacapan, & S. Oskamp (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Health. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  8. Ellis, A. J., Shumake, J., & Beevers, C. G. (2016). The effects of respiratory sinus arrhythmia on anger reactivity and persistence in major depression. Psychophysiology, 53, 1587–1599. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Gouin, J.-P., Deschênes, S. S., & Dugas, M. J. (2014). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia during worry forecasts stress-related increases in psychological distress. Stress, 17, 416–422. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Holterman, L. A., Murray-Close, D. K., & Breslend, N. L. (2016). Relational victimization and depressive symptoms: The role of autonomic nervous system reactivity in emerging adults. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 110, 119–127. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. James, T. N. (2003). Structure and function of the sinus node, AV node and his bundle of the human heart: Part II–function. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 45, 327–360. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Kim, H.-G., Cheon, E.-J., Bai, D.-S., Lee, Y. H., & Koo, B.-H. (2018). Stress and heart rate variability: A meta-analysis and review of the literature. Psychiatry Investigation, 15, 235–245. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Lehrer, P. M., & Gevirtz, R. (2014). Heart rate variability biofeedback: How and why does it work? Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 756. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  14. Lü, W., Wang, Z., & Hughes, B. M. (2016). The association between openness and physiological responses to recurrent social stress. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 106, 135–140. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Mayhugh, R. E., Laurienti, P. J., Fanning, J., Gauvin, L., Heilman, K. J., Porges, S. W., et al. (2018). Cardiac vagal dysfunction moderates patterns of craving across the day in moderate to heavy consumers of alcohol. PLoS ONE. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  16. Oswalt, S. B., Lederer, A. M., Chestnut-Steich, K., Day, C., Halbritter, A., & Ortiz, D. (2018). Trends in college students’ mental health diagnoses and utilization of services, 2009–2015. Journal of American College Health. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Porges, S. W. (1985). Method and apparatus for evaluating rhythmic oscillations in aperiodic physiological response systems.Google Scholar
  18. Porges, S. W. (1995). Cardiac vagal tone: A physiological index of stress. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 19, 225–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology, 74, 116–143. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Porges, S. W., & Bohrer, R. E. (1990). The analysis of periodic processes in psychophysiological research. In J. T. Cacioppo, & L. G. Tassinary (Eds.), Principles of psychophysiology: Physical, social, and inferential elements (pp. 708–753). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Porges, S. W., Doussard-Roosevelt, J. A., Portales, A. L., & Greenspan, S. I. (1996). Infant regulation of the vagal “brake” predicts child behavior problems: A psychobiological model of social behavior. Developmental Psychobiology, 29, 697–712.;2-O CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Riniolo, T., & Porges, S. W. (1997). Inferential and descriptive influences on measures of respiratory sinus arrhythmia: Sampling rate, R-wave trigger accuracy, and variance estimates. Psychophysiology. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Roberti, J. W., Harrington, L. N., & Storch, E. A. (2006). Further psychometric support for the 10-item version of the perceived stress scale. Journal of College Counseling. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Saleh, D., Camart, N., & Romo, L. (2017). Predictors of stress in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 19. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  25. Samaha, M., & Hawi, N. S. (2016). Relationships among smartphone addiction, stress, academic performance, and satisfaction with life. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 321–325. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Shiffman, S., Stone, A. A., & Hufford, M. R. (2008). Ecological momentary assessment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4, 1–32. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Smyth, J. M., Wonderlich, S. A., Heron, K. E., Sliwinski, M. J., Crosby, R. D., Mitchell, J. E., et al. (2007). Daily and momentary mood and stress are associated with binge eating and vomiting in bulimia nervosa patients in the natural environment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 629–638. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Thayer, J. F., Hansen, A. L., Saus-Rose, E., & Johnsen, B. H. (2009). Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: The neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37, 141–153. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Thayer, J. F., & Lane, R. D. (2000). A model of neurovisceral integration in emotion regulation and dysregulation. Journal of Affective Disorders, 61, 201–216. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Trull, T. J., Solhan, M. B., Tragesser, S. L., Jahng, S., Wood, P. K., Piasecki, T. M., et al. (2008). Affective instability: Measuring a core feature of borderline personality disorder with ecological momentary assessment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117, 647–661. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Fanning
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • J. L. Silfer
    • 2
  • H. Liu
    • 2
  • L. Gauvin
    • 3
  • K. J. Heilman
    • 4
  • S. W. Porges
    • 4
    • 5
  • W. J. Rejeski
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Internal MedicineWake Forest School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA
  2. 2.Department of Health and Exercise SciencesWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA
  3. 3.Centre de recherche du Centre Hospitalier de l, Université de Montréal (CRCHUM) and Département de médecine sociale et préventive, École de Santé PubliqueUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of North Carolina, Chapel HillChapel HillUSA
  5. 5.Traumatic Stress Research Consortium, Kinsey InstituteIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations