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. 2017 Jul;54(7):1054-1069.
doi: 10.1111/psyp.12856. Epub 2017 Mar 23.

Flexible Parasympathetic Responses to Sadness Facilitate Spontaneous Affect Regulation

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Free PMC article

Flexible Parasympathetic Responses to Sadness Facilitate Spontaneous Affect Regulation

Jonathan P Stange et al. Psychophysiology. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

The ability of the parasympathetic nervous system to flexibly adapt to changes in environmental context is thought to serve as a physiological indicator of self-regulatory capacity, and deficits in parasympathetic flexibility appear to characterize affective disorders such as depression. However, whether parasympathetic flexibility (vagal withdrawal to emotional or environmental challenges such as sadness, and vagal augmentation during recovery from sadness) could facilitate the effectiveness of adaptive affect regulation strategies is not known. In a study of 178 undergraduate students, we evaluated whether parasympathetic flexibility in response to a sad film involving loss would enhance the effectiveness of regulatory strategies (reappraisal, distraction, and suppression) spontaneously employed to reduce negative affect during a 2-min uninstructed recovery period following the induction. Parasympathetic reactivity and recovery were indexed by fluctuations in respiratory sinus arrhythmia and high-frequency heart rate variability. Cognitive reappraisal and distraction were more effective in attenuating negative affect among individuals with more parasympathetic flexibility, particularly greater vagal augmentation during recovery, relative to individuals with less parasympathetic flexibility. In contrast, suppression was associated with less attenuation of negative affect, but only among individuals who also had less vagal withdrawal during the sad film. Alternative models provided partial support for reversed directionality, with reappraisal predicting greater parasympathetic recovery, but only when individuals also experienced greater reductions in negative affect. These results suggest that contextually appropriate parasympathetic reactivity and recovery may facilitate the success of affect regulation. Impairments in parasympathetic flexibility could confer risk for affective disorders due to attenuated capacity for effective self-regulation.

Keywords: affect; arousal; autonomic; emotion; heart rate variability; individual differences.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
Interactions between parasympathetic responses to a sad film and reappraisal (a and b), distraction (c and d), and suppression (e) predicting improvement in negative affect (NA) following the sad film (Z-standardized; greater improvement represents greater decreases in NA during the recovery period).
Figure 1
Figure 1
Interactions between parasympathetic responses to a sad film and reappraisal (a and b), distraction (c and d), and suppression (e) predicting improvement in negative affect (NA) following the sad film (Z-standardized; greater improvement represents greater decreases in NA during the recovery period).
Figure 1
Figure 1
Interactions between parasympathetic responses to a sad film and reappraisal (a and b), distraction (c and d), and suppression (e) predicting improvement in negative affect (NA) following the sad film (Z-standardized; greater improvement represents greater decreases in NA during the recovery period).
Figure 1
Figure 1
Interactions between parasympathetic responses to a sad film and reappraisal (a and b), distraction (c and d), and suppression (e) predicting improvement in negative affect (NA) following the sad film (Z-standardized; greater improvement represents greater decreases in NA during the recovery period).
Figure 1
Figure 1
Interactions between parasympathetic responses to a sad film and reappraisal (a and b), distraction (c and d), and suppression (e) predicting improvement in negative affect (NA) following the sad film (Z-standardized; greater improvement represents greater decreases in NA during the recovery period).
Figure 2
Figure 2
Interactions between reappraisal and changes in negative affect (NA) predicting recovery of (increases in) (a) high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) and (b) respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) during recovery period following sad film.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Interactions between reappraisal and changes in negative affect (NA) predicting recovery of (increases in) (a) high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) and (b) respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) during recovery period following sad film.

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