Heart rate, startle response, and intrusive trauma memories

Psychophysiology. 2014 Mar;51(3):236-46. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12176. Epub 2014 Jan 8.


The current study adopted the trauma film paradigm to examine potential moderators affecting heart rate (HR) as an indicator of peritraumatic psychological states and as a predictor of intrusive memories. We replicated previous findings that perifilm HR decreases predicted the development of intrusive images and further showed this effect to be specific to images rather than thoughts, and to detail rather than gist recognition memory. Moreover, a group of individuals showing both an atypical sudden reduction in HR after a startle stimulus and higher trait dissociation was identified. Only among these individuals was lower perifilm HR found to indicate higher state dissociation, fear, and anxiety, along with reduced vividness of intrusions. The current findings emphasize how peritraumatic physiological responses relate to emotional reactions and intrusive memory. The moderating role of individual difference in stress defense style was highlighted.

Keywords: Heart rate; Memory; Startle; Trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Fear / physiology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult