The use of heart rate variability (HRV) for monitoring stress has been growing in the behavioral health literature, especially in the areas of posttraumatic stress disorder, stress reactivity, and resilience. Few studies, however, have included general populations under workplace conditions. This study evaluates whether military and other first responders show lower HRV during stress than at baseline and greater post stress rebound, controlling for a myriad of potential confounders. A convenience sample of Reserves, National Guard, veteran, fire, and police personnel provided HRV and self-reported questionnaire responses before, during, and after a cognitive-stressor task with a smart phone application. Timing of HRV application; mental and physical health scores; coping and posttraumatic growth indicators, including being open to new possibilities; and emotional support were predictors of trajectories of the HRV response to stress. Findings from this exploratory study emphasize the strong link between stress and relaxation breathing in both respiratory sinus arrhythmia and low frequency heart rate variability and the need for controlling potential covariates for understanding the relationship between HRV and the stress response and providing a basis for hypothesis driven research.
Keywords: Heart rate variability; Mental health; Military; Posttraumatic growth; Resilience; Stress.
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