Respiratory sinus arrhythmia, emotion, and emotion regulation during social interaction


  • This research was completed as part of the first author's doctoral dissertation at Stanford University, and was supported by NIMH grant MH58147 to the third author. Partial support was also provided by Grant 105311-105850 from the Swiss National Science Foundation to the second author. Portions of these data were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research (September, 2005). The authors would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their extensive effort and valuable suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Address reprint requests to: Emily Butler, Family Studies and Human Development, University of Arizona, 1110 East South Campus Drive, Tucson, AZ, 85721-0033, USA. Email:


Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) figures prominently in emotional responding, but its exact role remains unclear. The present study tests two hypotheses: (1) Between-person differences in resting RSA are related to emotional reactivity, and (2) within-person changes in RSA are related to regulatory efforts. Pairs of women watched an upsetting film and discussed it. One woman in each of the experimental dyads was asked to either suppress or to reappraise during the conversation. Their partners and both members of the control dyads conversed naturally. Between-person differences in resting RSA were assessed with paced breathing, and within-person changes in RSA were calculated from baseline to the conversation accounting for respiration. Women with higher resting RSA experienced and expressed more negative emotion, and women who attempted to regulate their emotions either by suppressing or reappraising showed larger increases in RSA than controls.