Now in Psychological Medicine: Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia Reactivity to Parent-Child Conflict Linked to Emotion Dysregulation in Youth

Pitt Psychiatry investigators including Amy Byrd, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry), Vera Vine, PhD (postdoctoral fellow), Joseph Beeney, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry), Lori Scott, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry), J. Richard Jennings, PhD (Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Clinical and Translational Science), and Stephanie Stepp, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology) recently published a study examining the association between individual variability in peripheral physiology, specifically variation in tonic (resting) and phasic (reactivity) respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and dysregulated emotion and behavior, two transdiagnostic indicators that permeate most psychological disorders in youth. 

The scientists examined baseline RSA, RSA reactivity to parent-child conflict, and their interaction as predictors of dysregulated emotion and behavior in daily life. These associations were examined during the transition to adolescence, a developmental period characterized by normative increases in physiological reactivity and interpersonal conflict. 

“RSA is of particular interest given its unique association with parasympathetic nervous system function and its implicated role in self-regulation,” said Dr. Byrd, the study’s lead author. “We focused on physiological reactivity to stressors that reflect real-life social experiences, such as parent-child conflict, during this sensitive developmental window to enhance our understanding of risk for psychopathology. To characterize a more nuanced pattern of physiology in youth, we applied an under-utilized analytical approach to assess the within-person interplay between baseline RSA and RSA reactivity.”

Participants in this longitudinal study were 162 clinically referred youth (ages 11-13) who were receiving treatment for a range of mood or behavior problems. Youth and their parents completed a laboratory assessment that included continuous physiological recording during baseline tasks and a parent-child conflict discussion task. Following each laboratory assessment, youth and their parents also completed a four-day ecological momentary assessment that consisted of ten prompts sent to their phones over the course of a long weekend to capture dysregulated emotion and behavior in daily life.

Results from the study, published in Psychological Medicine, revealed that youth with greater RSA reactivity to parent-child conflict reported more extreme fluctuations in basic emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety in daily life. In addition, two distinct interactions emerged where youth with lower baseline RSA and greater RSA reactivity reported more dysregulated complex emotions, like shame, guilt, and loneliness, while youth with higher baseline RSA and greater RSA reactivity reported more dysregulated behaviors, like verbal and physical aggression.

Dr. Stepp, the study’s senior author concluded, “Our findings show that excessive RSA reactivity uniquely, and in combination with baseline RSA, increased risk for dysregulation in daily life. This finding highlights the role of autonomic stress responding as a risk factor for psychopathology and suggests that among clinically referred youth, intervention strategies targeting reactivity to stress, specifically interpersonal conflict, may be particularly useful in helping to reduce dysregulated emotion and behavior.”

RSA reactivity to parent-child conflict as a predictor of dysregulated emotion and behavior in daily life
Byrd AL, Vine V, Beeney JE, Scott LN, Jennings JR, Stepp SD

Psychological Medicine, 1-9. doi:10.1017/S0033291720002810