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A tale of two mechanisms: A meta-analytic approach toward understanding the autonomic basis of cardiovascular reactivity to acute psychological stress


  • The authors would like to thank all the researchers who provided additional data for this analysis. Annie Ginty is funded by an AXA Research Fund Postdoctoral Fellowship.


A series of meta-analyses was undertaken to determine the contributions of sympathetic and parasympathetic activation to cardiovascular stress reactivity. A literature search yielded 186 studies of sufficient quality that measured indices of sympathetic (n = 113) and/or parasympathetic activity (n = 73). A range of psychological stressors perturbed blood pressure and heart rate. There were comparable aggregate effects for sympathetic activation, as indexed by increased plasma epinephrine and norepinephrine, and shortened pre-ejection period and parasympathetic deactivation, as indexed by heart rate variability measures. Effect sizes varied with stress task, sex, and age. In contrast to alpha-adrenergic blockade, beta-blockade attenuated cardiovascular reactivity. Cardiovascular reactivity to acute psychological stress would appear to reflect both beta-adrenergic activation and vagal withdrawal to a largely equal extent.