Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Associations between Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia Reactivity and Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms Are Emotion Specific

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Associations between Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia Reactivity and Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms Are Emotion Specific

Article excerpt

Abstract Internalizing and externalizing disorders are often, though inconsistently in studies of young children, associated with low baseline levels of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). RSA is thus considered to reflect the capacity for flexible and regulated affective reactivity and a general propensity for psychopathology. However, studies assessing RSA reactivity to emotional challenges tend to report more consistent associations with internalizing than with externalizing disorders, although it is unclear whether this is a function of the type of emotion challenges used. In the present study, we examined whether baseline RSA was associated with internalizing and/or externalizing severity in a sample of 273 young children (ages 5-6) with elevated symptoms of psychopathology. Following motivation-based models of emotion, we also tested whether RSA reactivity during withdrawal-based (fear, sadness) and approach-based (happiness, anger) emotion inductions was differentially associated with internalizing and externalizing symptoms, respectively. Baseline RSA was not associated with externalizing or internalizing symptom severity. However, RSA reactivity to specific emotional challenges was associated differentially with each symptom domain. As expected, internalizing symptom severity was associated with greater RSA withdrawal (increased arousal) during fearful and sad film segments. Conversely, externalizing symptom severity was related to blunted RSA withdrawal during a happy film segment. The use of theoretically derived stimuli may be important in characterizing the nature of the deficits in emotion processing that differentiate the internalizing and externalizing domains of psychopathology.

Keywords Emotion · Respiratory sinus arrhythmia · Parasympathetic nervous system · Psychopathology · Internalizing · Externalizing

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a marker of parasympathetic control over cardiac arousal, is regularly utilized in the study of emotion reactivity and regulation (Beauchaine, 2001; Beauchaine, Gatzke-Kopp, & Mead, 2007; Oveis et al., 2009; Porges, 2001; Thayer, Ahs, Fredrikson, Sollers, & Wager, 2012). Attenuated baseline RSA is broadly indicative of a decreased capacity to maintain regulatory control over affective arousal and is thought to reflect a general diathesis for pathologically dysregulated emotions (e.g., Beauchaine, 2001; Hinnant & El-Sheikh, 2009; Pine et al., 1998). Research has also indicated that greater RSA withdrawal (increased arousal) in response to an emotional challenge reflects greater attentional engagement with the emotional stimulus and a potential loss of regulatory control over affective arousal (Beauchaine et al., 2007; Calkins, Graziano, & Keane, 2007; Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, Portales, & Greenspan, 1996). This association has been further supported by experimental studies demonstrating that adults instructed to regulate their emotional response exhibit an increase in RSA (Butler, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2006). Although both baseline RSA and RSA reactivity are implicated in dysregulated affective arousal, the results for baseline RSA have been more consistent across a wide range of psychopathologies, at least in adolescent and adult samples (see Beauchaine, 2001).

Whereas lower baseline levels of RSA are thought to reflect capacity for regulating emotional reactivity, and thus a generalized diathesis, it is less clear how changes in RSA in response to a stimulus are associated with psychopathology. Moderate levels of RSAwithdrawal in response to a challenge (reflecting a disengagement of the inhibitory control of the parasympathetic system and a consequent increase in physiological arousal) are considered adaptive and have been associated with positive outcomes, including better academic performance (e.g., Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007), executive functioning (e.g., Marcovitch et al., 2010), and social competence (e.g. …

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