An Investigation into the Link Between Heart Rate Variability and Intrusive Thoughts: Implications for Cancer Survivors

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Cancer survivors often suffer from long-term health problems like cardiac dysfunction, chronic stress, fatigue, and depression. One common underlying factor for these problems is low heart-rate variability (HRV), exhibiting less variation in the time interval between heartbeats, which is also linked to all-cause mortality. Research has found that stress in the form of persistent, negative thoughts is also linked to poor health and thought to have a direct, harmful impact on somatic disease; however, only a handful of studies investigating this theory have been conducted in cancer populations. Our study examined the relationship between HRV and intrusive thoughts among cancer survivors. We hypothesized that female breast cancer survivors who experience higher levels of intrusive thoughts will exhibit lower HRV than those who experience lower levels of intrusive thoughts. Stage 0-IIIA breast cancer survivors (N = 200) were recruited for a larger study exploring the effects of yoga on survivors’ stress, fatigue, and inflammation. Subject’s baseline intrusive thoughts using the Impact of Events Scale (IES) were compared to their baseline HRV levels. Analyses revealed that cancer survivors with higher IES scores (intrusive thoughts) have lower HRV than those with lower IES scores (r=-0.169, p=0.031). Effects remained significant when controlling for age, cancer stage, time of treatment to baseline visit, and body mass index. These results confirm our hypothesis, indicating that women more distressed about their cancer diagnosis exhibited lower HRV than those who were less distressed; establishing an important, novel link between survivors’ vulnerability to certain health problems and the impact that mental, emotional cancer-related distress has on somatic health. Early identification of those experiencing traumatic cancer-related distress upon diagnosis, as indexed by intrusive thoughts, will be important in helping to prolong the long-term health of cancer survivors.


Psychology: 3rd Place (The Ohio State University Denman Undergraduate Research Forum)


Psychophysiology, Heart Rate Variability (HRV), Psycho-oncology, Impact of Events Scale (IES), Intrusive Thoughts, Breast Cancer