Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia as an Index of Parasympathetic Cardiac Control During Active Coping


  • This study was made possible by a visiting scholar's grant from the University of Bergen to the first author.

Address requests for reprints to: Paul Grossman, Department of Physiological Psychology, Free University, De Boelelaan 1115, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


Psychophysiological studies concerning tonic cardiac responses to stressor tasks have tended to emphasize beta-adrenergic effects and to neglect parasympathetic influences and sympathetic-parasympathetic interactions. Much recent evidence indicates that both within- and between-individual variations in cardiac parasympathetic heart rate (HR) control can be easily and reliably assessed by measuring the magnitude of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Therefore, we used RSA to index cardiac vagal responses to two active coping tasks. Both tasks consisted of the same video game, in one condition with threat of shock for inferior performance, and in the other without such threat. Twenty subjects underwent both tasks (counterbalanced over subjects), plus a preceding resting baseline period. HR and RSA were continuously measured. Results suggested that cardiac parasympathetic activity was diminished from rest to task, contributing to heart rate responses. Exaggerated HR responses were also associated with extreme parasympathetic withdrawal. Furthermore, task condition X sequence of presentation interaction effects showed that threat of shock was particularly effective in elevating HR and reducing RSA when the threat was presented during the first task condition. A repeated-measures analysis of covariance of HR, attempting to remove the effects of parasympathetic influences upon HR, suggested that sympathetic influences upon HR exceeded any reciprocal vagal effects during the threat condition for those subjects exposed to the threat task first. The findings indicate the importance of considering stress-related parasympathetic effects upon HR as well as sympathetic-vagal interactions.