Children's vagal regulatory capacity predicts attenuated sympathetic stress reactivity in a socially supportive context: Evidence for a protective effect of the vagal system

Brian C. Wolff, Martha E. Wadsworth, Frank H. Wilhelm, Iris B. Mauss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations

Abstract

Social support and vagal regulatory capacity (VRC), an index of flexible vagal responses during various types of stress, are linked to attenuated stress responding and positive health outcomes. Guided by the polyvagal perspective, we tested whether children's VRC is associated with attenuated sympathetic nervous system (SNS) stress reactivity in socially supportive conditions. Sixty-one 4- to 5-year-old children living in poverty underwent two standardized laboratory stress induction procedures. Cardiac vagal reactivity (respiratory sinus arrhythmia) to a first set of stressors (social, cognitive, physical, and emotional) indexed VRC. During a second set of stressors, participants were randomly assigned to a supportive or nonsupportive social context, and cardiac sympathetic reactivity (preejection period) was assessed. We hypothesized VRC would predict lower SNS stress reactivity, but only in the socially supportive context. Children with high VRC showed attenuated SNS stress reactivity in the socially supportive context compared to children with high VRC in the nonsupportive context and children with low VRC in either context. Individual differences in VRC predict attenuated SNS stress reactivity in socially supportive conditions. Understanding how social support and VRC jointly mitigate SNS stress reactivity may further efforts to prevent negative health outcomes. Implications for biological sensitivity to context and differential susceptibility theories are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)677-689
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Volume24
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - May 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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