• cardiac arousal;
  • caregiving;
  • nervous system vulnerability;
  • stress response

Patients who are hospitalized for treatment of cardiac problems are at risk from life-threatening cardiovascular changes related to autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal. Physical care during hospitalization can increase ANS arousal, yet caregiving is an essential feature of patient treatment. The purpose of this study was to identify the degree to which a patient’s vulnerability to sensory stimuli, perceptions of previous caregiving and stressful events during hospitalization may contribute to ANS arousal during caregiving. Fifty-nine patients, who were hospitalized for treatment of coronary artery or valvular disease, received a standardized protocol designed to simulate aspects of physical caregiving. Heart rate, incidence of arrhythmias, blood pressure and state anxiety were measured during the protocol to determine ANS arousal. Regression analyses provided evidence that sensory vulnerability was the most consistent predictor across all indices of arousal during caregiving. Previous caregiving experiences that were perceived as ‘negative’ by the patient also contributed to higher blood pressure and anxiety. Stressful hospital events involving the family predicted higher blood pressure during caregiving.