Examining the Crux of Autonomic Dysfunction in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Whether Chronic or Situational Distress Underlies Elevated Heart Rate and Attenuated Heart Rate Variability

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Abstract

Objective

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been linked to elevated heart rate (HR) and reduced heart rate variability (HRV) in cross-sectional research. Using ecological momentary assessment and minute-to-minute HRV/HR monitoring, we examined whether cross-sectional associations between PTSD symptom severity and HRV/HR were due to overall elevations in distress levels or to attenuated autonomic regulation during episodes of acute distress.

Methods

Two hundred nineteen young adults (18–39 years old), 99 with PTSD, underwent 1 day of Holter monitoring and concurrently reported distress levels via ecological momentary assessment. Using multilevel modeling, we examined the associations between momentary distress and the 5-minute means for low-frequency (LF) and high-frequency (HF) HRV and HR immediately following distress ratings, and whether PTSD symptom severity moderated these associations.

Results

Compared with the controls, participants with PTSD recorded higher ambulatory distress (mean [standard deviation] = 1.7 [0.5] versus 1.2 [0.3], p < .001) and HR (87.2 [11.8] versus 82.9 [12.6] beats/min, p = .011), and lower ambulatory LF HRV (36.9 [14.7] versus 43.7 [16.9 ms, p = .002) and HF HRV (22.6 [12.3] versus 26.4 [14.6] milliseconds, p = .043). Overall distress level was not predictive of HR or HRV (p values > .27). However, baseline PTSD symptom severity was associated with elevated HR (t(1257) = 2.76, p = .006) and attenuated LF (t(1257) = −3.86, p < .001) and HF (t(1257) = −2.62, p = .009) in response to acute momentary distress.

Conclusions

Results suggest that PTSD is associated with heightened arousal after situational distress and could explain prior findings associating PTSD with HR/HRV. Implications for treatment and cardiovascular risk are discussed.

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