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Looking at the heart of low and high heart rate variability fearful flyers: self-reported anxiety when confronting feared stimuli

Biological Psychology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.01.002
  • Flight Phobia
  • Heart Rate Variability
  • Exposure
  • Dynamical Systems
  • Biology


Abstract Previous research has shown that phobic subjects with low heart rate variability (HRV) are less able to inhibit an inappropriate response when confronted with threatening words compared to phobic subjects with high HRV [Johnsen, B.H., Thayer, J.F., Laberg, J.C., Wormnes, B., Raadal, M., Skaret, E., et al., 2003. Attentional and physiological characteristics of patients with dental anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 17, 75–87]. The aim of this study was to evaluate changes in self-reported anxiety when low HRV and high HRV fearful flyers ( N = 15) and a matched control group ( N = 15) were exposed to flight-related pictures, flight-related sounds or both pictures and sounds. We hypothesized that sounds would be crucial to evoke fear. Also, low HRV fearful flyers were expected to report higher anxiety than high HRV fearful flyers assuming anxiety as their inappropriate response. Decreases on HRV measures were also predicted for a subgroup of phobic participants ( N = 10) when confronted with the feared stimuli. Our data supported the hypothesis that sounds are crucial in this kind of phobia. Low HRV fearful flyers reported higher anxiety than high HRV fearful flyers in two out of three aversive conditions. The predicted HRV decreases were not found in this study. Results are discussed in the context of avoidance of exposure-based treatments.

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