Emotional stress and heart rate variability measures associated with cardiovascular risk in relocated katrina survivors

Phebe Tucker, Betty Pfefferbaum, Haekyung Jeon-Slaughter, Qaiser Khan, Theresa Garton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Objective: To explore the effects of hurricane exposure and forced relocation on the mind and body, we compared psychiatric diagnoses and symptoms with heart rate variability (HRV) for 34 relocated Katrina survivors and 34 demographically matched controls. Methods: All participants were healthy and free of psychiatric and cardiovascular medications. We measured symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale 1) and depression (Beck Depression Inventory), Axis I psychiatric diagnoses (Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV), psychosocial disability (Sheehan Disability Scale), and power spectral analysis HRV reactivity to trauma reminders. Results: Katrina-related PTSD occurred in 38% of survivors and 12% of controls. Survivors reported higher levels of PTSD and depression symptoms, within diagnostic ranges, and greater psychosocial disability than controls. Survivors had higher resting heart rate (80.82 [standard deviation = 13.60] versus 74.85 [10.67], p = .05), lower parasympathetic (high-frequency [HF] normalized unit) baseline HRV activity (40.14 [23.81] versus 50.67 [19.93], p = .04) and less reactivity with trauma cues (-2.63 [20.70] versus-11.96 [15.84], p = .04), and higher baseline sympathovagal activity (low frequency/HF ratio) (2.84 [3.08] versus 1.35 [1.08], p = .04) than controls. Survivors with depression (n = 12) and with depression and PTSD combined (n = 7), but not those with PTSD (n = 13), had flattened parasympathetic responsiveness to trauma cues. HRV indices correlated with depressive (low frequency/HF, p = .01; HF normalized unit, p = .046) but not PTSD symptoms (p values > .05). Conclusions: Results showed this multilayer trauma's impact on emotional health and HRV-based measures of autonomic nervous system dysregulation. Specifically, dysregulation of depressed survivors' HRV in response to trauma reminders supports more autonomic involvement in traumatic loss/depression than in PTSD. Diagnostic criteria for PTSD include physiologic reactivity, and the present findings suggest that, in this setting, altered physiologic reactivity observed when PTSD coexists with depression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-168
Number of pages9
JournalPsychosomatic Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012


  • anxiety
  • cardiovascular risk
  • depression
  • heart rate variability
  • hurricane
  • power spectral analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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