A longitudinal examination of heart-rate and heart rate variability as risk markers for child posttraumatic stress symptoms in an acute injury sample

Katharina Haag, Rachel M. Hiller, Peter Peyk, Tanja Michael, Richard Meiser-Stedman, Pasco Fearon, Anke Ehlers, Sarah L. Halligan

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Heart rate (HR) alterations in the immediate aftermath of trauma-exposure have been proposed to be potentially useful markers for child and adolescent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, it is not yet clear if this holds true for measures taken more distal to the trauma, and no studies have investigated the predictive validity of more sensitive HR variability (HRV) indices. We recruited 76 parent-child pairs (child age 6 to 13 years) after the child experienced a traumatic event leading to presentation at a hospital emergency department. At 1-month post trauma (T1), HR recordings were obtained at rest, and while children verbally recounted their traumatic experience, both alone and together with a parent. Child post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) were assessed concurrently (T1), and at 3 (T2) and 6-month (T3) follow-ups. We found that for T1, elevated mean HR during trauma narratives, but not at baseline, was positively associated with PTSS, with some evidence that HRV-indices were negatively cross-sectionally associated with PTSS. Furthermore, T1 HR indices predicted PTSS at T2 and partially at T3, although these effects did not hold when T1 PTSS were added to the model. Findings suggest that, consistent with the adult literature, HR indices in children may be a concurrent marker of higher PTSS and may be predictive of longer term distress. The findings encourage further investigations that track child HR and HRV in relation to PTSS over time after trauma, in order to examine how biological profiles evolve in those with persistent symptoms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1811-1820
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date10 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019

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