Correlation of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity during rest and acute stress tasks

Int J Psychophysiol. 2021 Apr;162:60-68. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2021.01.015. Epub 2021 Feb 6.


Autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity is a core and central component of emotion and motivated action. The myriad social and cognitive challenges faced by humans require flexible modulation of ANS activity for different contexts. In this study, simultaneous activity of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system was measured using respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and pre-ejection period (PEP), respectively. Samples combined four previous studies (N = 325, 63% female, aged 15-55) in which RSA and PEP were collected continuously during a resting baseline and an acute stressor, the Trier Social Stress Task. The concurrent relation between RSA and PEP responses was modelled in order to determine the extent to which SNS and PNS activity is correlated across the task within and between participants, and whether this correlation was moderated by age, race, sex, or baseline RSA and PEP. Overall, RSA and PEP were reciprocally coupled. However, recovery from a stressor was characterized by coactivation. Individuals also vary in the extent to which their SNS and PNS are reciprocally coupled; women, younger adults, and individuals with higher baseline RSA showed more reciprocal coupling than men, older adults, and those with lower baseline RSA, respectively, reflecting greater coordination of physiological responding in the former groups.

Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; Gender differences; Pre-ejection period; Respiratory sinus arrhythmia; Social stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System*
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System