People who did not have a large heart rate response to a stress task surprised researchers when they showed more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder related to the crisis than others who also did the stress task and COVID-19 stress ratings.Researchers had anticipated that the reverse would be true — that those with higher heart rate reactions to the stress task would experience more distress related to COVID-19. Previous work shows individuals with a PTSD have higher responses to stress. But very few studies have examined heart rate responses to acute stress before the onset of a traumatic event, researchers said.
“The study shows that diminished biological arousal — how the body responds when it is exposed to something startling or stressful — before a global pandemic may predict PTSD symptoms related to the event,” said principal investigator Annie T. Ginty, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University.
The biological reactions were measured by blood pressure and heart rate, said co-author Danielle Young, Psy.D., research coordinator in the Baylor Behavioral Medicine Lab.The study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, grew out of an ongoing study of undergraduate students at Baylor University.
“The research also showed that some college students were experiencing distress related to the pandemic in its earliest stages, even when social distancing was just beginning,” Ginty said.In the study’s first phase, with 120 participants, researchers measured their resting heart rate and blood pressure before and during a standard acute psychological stress test. They asked students to do mental math, rather than writing down figures or using a calculator, and give the scorers verbal responses.