Heart Rate Reactivity May Predict Impact of Childhood Adversity in Adulthood

It may be that resilience in the face of stress is an ability that’s partly in the head and partly in the heart. Actually, technically speaking, it’s probably all in the head, but the heart can still tell us interesting things about what’s going on in the head.

That’s because people’s heart rate can be a marker for their physiological response to stress and certain emotions. Some people have more variable heart rates than others – that is, their heart rates change more in response to stress.

With this in mind, there may be quite a bit we can learn from people’s hearts. One thing the heart might be able to tell us, according to psychologists from Arizona State University, is how experiences of childhood adversity affect mental health later on in young adulthood.

To test this idea, the researchers ran a study of 150 college students between the ages of 18 and 28. They asked the students about their experiences of family adversity growing up, including whether their parents died or divorced, or whether children were maltreated in their families. The researchers also surveyed the participants about their current mental health, including their depressive symptoms and their experiences of positive emotions. Finally, the researchers monitored the students’ heart rates under stress.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there was a link between childhood adversity and adult mental health – specifically, people who experienced childhood maltreatment had more symptoms of depression and fewer positive emotions as adults. But there was a catch.

This relationship only held true for those who had average or above-average heart rate reactivity under stress. For those who kept their cool and whose heart rates changed less than average in stressful situations, childhood adversity was not related to mental health in young adulthood.

In other words, it may be that people who are more physiologically sensitive to stress are also affected more by childhood adversity. More generally, the authors of the study suggested that people who are more “biologically sensitive” to stress may be more at the mercy of their environments in general. And if you thought a steady mind was the key to mental health, it may that a steady heart is just as important!

Image: Flickr/Yann