Heart rate variability and the relationship between trauma exposure age, and psychopathology in a post-conflict setting
AuthorLiddell, BJ; Kemp, AH; Steel, Z; Nickerson, A; Bryant, RA; Tam, N; Tay, AK; Silove, D
Source TitleBMC Psychiatry
University of Melbourne Author/sBryant, Richard
Document TypeJournal Article
CitationsLiddell, B. J., Kemp, A. H., Steel, Z., Nickerson, A., Bryant, R. A., Tam, N., Tay, A. K. & Silove, D. (2016). Heart rate variability and the relationship between trauma exposure age, and psychopathology in a post-conflict setting. BMC PSYCHIATRY, 16 (1), https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-016-0850-5.
Access StatusOpen Access
BACKGROUND: Cumulative exposure to potentially traumatic events (PTEs) increases risk for mental distress in conflict-affected settings, but the psychophysiological mechanisms that mediate this dose-response relationship are unknown. We investigated diminished heart rate variability (HRV) - an index of vagus nerve function and a robust predictor of emotion regulation capacity - as a vulnerability marker that potentially mediates the association between PTE exposure, age and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological distress and aggressive behavior, in a community sample from Timor-Leste - a post-conflict country with a history of mass violence. METHOD: Resting state heart rate data was recorded from 45 cases of PTSD, depression and intermittent explosive disorder (IED); and 29 non-case controls. RESULTS: Resting HRV was significantly reduced in the combined case group compared with non-cases (p = .021; Cohen's d = 0.5). A significant mediation effect was also observed, whereby a sequence of increased age, reduced HRV and elevated PTSD symptoms mediated the association between PTE exposure and distress (B = .06, SE = .05, 95% CI = [.00-.217]) and aggression (B = .02, SE = .02, 95% CI = [.0003-.069])). CONCLUSION: The findings demonstrate an association between diminished resting HRV and psychopathology. Moreover, age-related HRV reductions emerged as a potential psychophysiological mechanism that underlies enhanced vulnerability to distress and aggression following cumulative PTE exposure.
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