People with less body response to stress task had more PTSD signs after COVID-19 began

August 31, 2020

People who did not have a large heart rate response to a stress task surprised researchers later -- after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic -- 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. In a four-minute test, they were asked to add consecutive single-digit numbers while remembering the most recent and adding it to the next number presented. They did this while being videotaped with a scorer present and looking at themselves in a mirror.

"The standard acute psychological stress task is meant to increase levels of stress by including requirements of cognitive effort, social evaluation, self-evaluation and competition," Ginty said. "The task substantially increases heart rate and feelings of stress."

The study's first phase, which ended in February 2020, was done in Central Texas. After the pandemic's onset, researchers launched a second phase between March 26 and April 5, sending participants a follow-up questionnaire about COVID-19. The participants were in 22 states after early campus closure due to COVID-19. When asked, none had tested positive for COVID-19 and 87.5 percent were living in a city/state with a "shelter in place" order.

The questionnaire included standard items used to measure PTSD symptoms of intrusion (dreaming about the event and having trouble staying asleep), hyperarousal (irritability and having trouble concentrating) and avoidance (trying not to think or talk about the event) in the seven days before they responded to the questionnaire.

The findings are in line with a previous study of soldiers, which showed that a lower response of cortisol -- the primary stress hormone -- to an acute psychological stress task before deployment predicted greater PTSD symptoms post deployment.

The present study supports growing evidence that lower biological arousal in response to psychological stress may be bad for health outcomes, particularly mental health outcomes. The findings support Ginty's previous work, which demonstrated that lower arousal to acute stress is associated with higher levels of perceived stress -- meaning that people rate their environment as more stressful.

Previous work also has shown that higher levels of biological arousal may be associated with developing PTSD symptoms. But those studies used what are considered passive tasks -- such as hearing loud bursts of noise. Lower biological responses to stress tasks that require participants to actively engage in the task may be a unique biomarker for mental health outcomes.

Ginty said that future research should aim for more comprehensive measures of biological reactivity and include a lifetime history of traumatic event exposure. However, the current study did account for childhood trauma and diagnosis of a mental health condition before the pandemic's onset.

"Since findings suggest that individuals with diminished arousal to active stress may be at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes, it could be helpful to offer preventive treatment or resources to them at the early stages of stress or trauma exposure," Ginty said.
*Co-researchers included the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science and Neuroscience Program at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Baylor University

Related Blood Pressure Articles from Brightsurf:

Children who take steroids at increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clots
Children who take oral steroids to treat asthma or autoimmune diseases have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and blood clots, according to Rutgers researchers.

High blood pressure treatment linked to less risk for drop in blood pressure upon standing
Treatment to lower blood pressure did not increase and may decrease the risk of extreme drops in blood pressure upon standing from a sitting position.

Changes in blood pressure control over 2 decades among US adults with high blood pressure
National survey data were used to examine how blood pressure control changed overall among U.S. adults with high blood pressure between 1999-2000 and 2017-2018 and by age, race, insurance type and access to health care.

Transient increase in blood pressure promotes some blood vessel growth
Blood vessels are the body's transportation system, carrying oxygen and nutrients to cells and whisking away waste.

Effect of reducing blood pressure medications on blood pressure control in older adults
Whether the amount of blood pressure medications taken by older adults could be reduced safely and without a significant change in short-term blood pressure control was the objective of this randomized clinical trial that included 534 adults 80 and older.

Brain blood flow sensor discovery could aid treatments for high blood pressure & dementia
A study led by researchers at UCL has discovered the mechanism that allows the brain to monitor its own blood supply, a finding in rats which may help to find new treatments for human conditions including hypertension (high blood pressure) and dementia.

Here's something that will raise your blood pressure
The apelin receptor (APJ) has been presumed to play an important role in the contraction of blood vessels involved in blood pressure regulation.

New strategy for treating high blood pressure
The key to treating blood pressure might lie in people who are 'resistant' to developing high blood pressure even when they eat high salt diets, shows new research published today in Experimental Physiology.

Arm cuff blood pressure measurements may fall short for predicting heart disease risk in some people with resistant high blood pressure
A measurement of central blood pressure in people with difficult-to-treat high blood pressure could help reduce risk of heart disease better than traditional arm cuff readings for some patients, according to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association's Hypertension 2019 Scientific Sessions.

Heating pads may lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure when lying down
In people with supine hypertension due to autonomic failure, a condition that increases blood pressure when lying down, overnight heat therapy significantly decreased systolic blood pressure compared to a placebo.

Read More: Blood Pressure News and Blood Pressure Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to