Respiratory sinus arrhythmia and cardiovascular responses to stress

Psychophysiology. 1992 Jul;29(4):461-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1992.tb01720.x.


The parasympathetic nervous system provides mechanisms that could attenuate sympathetically mediated heart rate stress responses and might have even more general antagonistic actions on stress reactivity. Individuals characterized by higher levels of parasympathetic tone might, through such mechanisms, be less reactive when stimuli elicit sympathetically mediated responses. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is considered to be a noninvasive index of cardiac parasympathetic (vagal) tone. The present study investigated whether individual differences in RSA level at rest could predict variations among individuals in the magnitude of cardiovascular responses to psychological stress. None of the measures of resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia, derived from spectral analysis of beat-to-beat changes in resting heart rate, predicted the observed variations in cardiovascular task reactivity. However, scores reflecting respiratory sinus arrhythmia as the percentage of total heart rate variability (RSAnorm) were negatively correlated with blood pressure levels, both at rest and during the task. Furthermore, subjects with higher scores for RSAnorm demonstrated a faster adaptation of heart rate responses during stress, which suggests the development of parasympathetic antagonism to ongoing sympathetic arousal. Although a simple relationship between respiratory sinus arrhythmia and reactivity was not observed, these results encourage further investigation of RSA measures as psychophysiological indices of individual differences in parasympathetic (vagal) cardiac tone, or perhaps of general parasympathetic/sympathetic balance, which could modulate the expression of potentially pathogenic stress responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arrhythmia, Sinus / physiopathology*
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Hemodynamics / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*