Zandstra ARE, Ormel J, Dietrich A, Van den Heuvel ER, Hoekstra PJ, Hartman CA › Trails

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Sensitivity to psychosocial chronic stressors and adolescents’ externalizing problems: Combined moderator effects of resting heart rate and parental psychiatric history

Authors: Zandstra ARE, Ormel J, Dietrich A, Van den Heuvel ER, Hoekstra PJ, Hartman CA

From the literature it is not clear whether low resting heart rate (HR) reflects low or high sensitivity to the detrimental effects of adverse environments on externalizing problems. We studied parental psychiatric history (PH), reflecting general vulnerability, as possible moderator explaining these inconsistencies. Using Linear Mixed Models, we analyzed data from 1914 subjects, obtained in three measurement waves (mean age 11, 13.5, and 16 years) from the TRacking Adolescents' Individual Lives Survey population-based cohort and the parallel clinic-referred cohort. As hypothesized, more chronic stressors predicted more externalizing problems in vulnerable individuals with high resting HR but not in those with low resting HR, suggesting high vs. low sensitivity, respectively, to adverse environmental influences. Low sensitivity to adverse environmental influences in vulnerable individuals exposed to high stressor levels was additionally confirmed by high heart rate variability (Root Mean Squared Successive Difference; RMSSD). In adolescents with low vulnerability, in contrast, the association between chronic stressors and externalizing problems did not substantially differ by resting HR and RMSSD. Future research may demonstrate whether our findings extend to other adverse, or beneficial, influences. Notwithstanding their theoretical interest, the effects were small, only pertained to parent-reported externalizing problems, refer to a small subset of respondents in our sample, and are in need of replication. We conclude that HR and RMSSD are unlikely to be strong moderators of the association between stressors and externalizing problems.

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