PTSD Insight: Could Low Heart Rate Variability Contribute To The Risk?


Heart rate variability is the variation in the interval of time between heartbeats, and it might play a role in the likelihood that a person could develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after exposure to traumatic events like natural disasters, serious accidents, and military combat. It might seem like a steady heart rhythm is ideal, but increased heart rate variability is actually a sign of good health and a strong, autonomic nervous system. Researchers have linked low heart rate variability to PTSD in the past, but until now, according to the authors of a new paper, the direction of this link wasn’t clear.

The new information comes out of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. The team studied the heart rate variability of two large groups of marines who served from July 2008 to October 2013 before the marines’ combat deployment and once they returned. The team discovered that it’s not simply that the marines’ heart rate variability slipped after combat exposure, the marines who had the reduced heart rate variability prior to deployment were the marines that were most likely to come home with PTSD symptoms.

“It suggests that an altered state of the autonomic nervous system may contribute to vulnerability and resilience to PTSD, along with known risk factors, such as combat exposure and preexisting stress and trauma symptoms,” Arpi Minassian, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD and first author of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, said, according to the press release.

A Psychology Today article highlights the connection between the autonomic nervous system and the heart.

“Our autonomic nervous system (that is, the nervous system that takes care of all the stuff we don’t always actively think about doing, such as breathing, digestion, sweat gland regulation, etc.) is divided into two master sections, the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) and the parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’). The parasympathetic nervous system affects heart rate via the vagus nerve(link is external). The vagus nerve generally sends a signal to slow the heartbeat and to make that beat more variable.”

A very clear explanation of heart rate variability with diagrams can be found on Mega Electronics’ website, which states that it is possible for people to work on increasing their heart rate variability.

“Good news is that you can learn to improve your heart rate variability through practicing with biofeedback training, and training of breathing and relaxation. This kind of practice will help in getting out from the unhealthy body regulation and improving life quality in general. If more detailed information about condition is needed, long-term HRV measurements of 1-7 days can be used. Scientific evidence has linked high heart rate variability to good health and fitness. In contrary, decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue or even burnout. Because of this it is important to monitor your HRV during normal everyday life. “

Anyone can determine their heart rate variability with a heart rate monitor and a smartphone app like the one that is offered by Cimba Leadership Laboratories as part of its neuroscience-based training program.

The new research that linked low heart rate variability to increased risk of PTSD also say that they believe they might be able to prevent PTSD by targeting the autonomic nervous system itself.

If further research indicates an even stronger link to heart rate variability and PTSD risk, should it be considered a condition that could disqualify a person in the military from deployment?

[Photo via Pixabay]