The acute consequences of a social aversive stimulus (defeat) on the autonomic control upon the electrical activity of the heart were measured and compared to those observed in three nonsocial stress paradigms, namely restraint, shock-probe test, and swimming. Electrocardiograms were recorded from rats via radiotelemetry, and the autonomic neural control of the heart was evaluated via measures of heart rate and heart rate variability, such as the average R-R interval (RR), the standard deviation of RR (SD), the coefficient of variance (SD/RR), and the root-mean-square of successive R-R interval differences (r-MSSD). Although all stressors induced significant reductions of average R-R interval, the effect of defeat was significantly larger (p < 0.05). The social stimulus also determined a significant decrease in the variability indexes (p < 0.01 for all), whereas in the other stress conditions they were either unchanged or increased (SD/RR during restraint, p < 0.05; SD and SD/RR during swimming, p < 0.05 and p < 0.01). Cardiac arrhythmias (mostly ventricular premature beats, VPBs) were far more frequent during defeat than during the other challenging situations (p < 0.01), with an average of 33.5 +/- 6.5 VPBs per 15-min test recording. These data suggest that during defeat autonomic control was shifted toward a sympathetic dominance, whereas in rats exposed to nonsocial stressors, although significant heart rate accelerations were also found, sympathovagal balance was substantially maintained. These differences in autonomic stress responsivity explain the different susceptibility to ventricular arrhythmias and indicate that a social challenge can be far more detrimental for cardiac electrical stability than other nonsocial aversive stimuli.