Health & Fitness

Heart rate variability: Can it serve as a marker of mental health resilience?

Kristen Sparrow • October 18, 2019

This article looks at HRV and how it relates to subjects’ reactions to “stressful laboratory tasks” (sounds dicey!). Subjects with higher vagal activity ( ie higher HRV) before and during the challenges,had improved resilience to tasks and lower markers of stress.
This could be a companion piece to this other study which advocates for HRV being a good overall measure of “well being”.  This makes sense to me, since HRV is a complexity measure.  It measures overall autonomic tone, which improves pain, immunity, mood, inflammation.  It can give a global reading of sorts of the system as a whole.  If one feels better, it makes sense that they might be more resilient and able to tackle harder tasks, or even dreaded “stressful laboratory tasks”.



Stress resilience influences mental well-being and vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. Usually, measurement of resilience is based on subjective reports, susceptible to biases. It justifies the need for objective biological/physiological biomarkers of resilience. One promising candidate as biomarker of mental health resilience (MHR) is heart rate variability (HRV). The evidence for its use was reviewed in this study.


We focused on the relationship between HRV (as measured through decomposition of RR intervals from electrocardiogram) and responses to laboratory stressors in individuals without medical and psychiatric diseases. We conducted a bibliographic search of publications in the PubMed for January 2010–September 2018.


Eight studies were included. High vagally mediated HRV before and/or during stressful laboratory tasks was associated with enhanced cognitive resilience to competitive/self-control challenges, appropriate emotional regulation during emotional tasks, and better modulation of cortisol, cardiovascular and inflammatory responses during psychosocial/mental tasks.


All studies were cross-sectional, restricting conclusions that can be made. Most studies included only young participants, with some samples of only males or females, and a limited array of HRV indexes. Ecological validity of stressful laboratory tasks remains unclear.


Vagally mediated HRV may serve as a global index of an individual’s flexibility and adaptability to stressors. This supports the idea of HRV as a plausible, noninvasive, and easily applicable biomarker of MHR. In future longitudinal studies, the implementation of wearable health devices, able to record HRV in naturalistic contexts of real-life, may be a valuable strategy to gain more reliable insight into this topic.