Heart rate responses to standardized trauma-related pictures in acute posttraumatic stress disorder.
Ehlers A., Suendermann O., Boellinghaus I., Vossbeck-Elsebusch A., Gamer M., Briddon E., Martin MW., Glucksman E.
Physiological responses to trauma reminders are one of the core symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nevertheless, screening measures for PTSD largely rely on symptom self-reports. It has been suggested that psychophysiological assessments may be useful in identifying trauma survivors with PTSD (Orr and Roth, 2000). This study investigated whether heart rate (HR) responses to standardized trauma-related pictures distinguish between trauma survivors with and without acute PTSD. Survivors of motor vehicle accidents or physical assaults (N=162) watched standardized trauma-related, generally threatening and neutral pictures at 1 month post-trauma while their ECG was recorded. At 1 and 6 months, structured clinical interviews assessed PTSD diagnoses. Participants completed self-report measures of PTSD severity and depression, peritraumatic responses, coping behaviors and appraisals. Trauma survivors with acute PTSD showed greater HR responses to trauma-related pictures than those without PTSD, as indicated by a less pronounced mean deceleration, greater peak responses, and a greater proportion showing HR acceleration of greater than 1 beat per minute. There were no group differences in HR responses to generally threatening or neutral pictures. HR responses to trauma-related pictures contributed to the prediction of PTSD diagnosis over and above what could be predicted from self-reports of PTSD and depression. HR responses to trauma-related pictures were related to fear and data-driven processing during the trauma, safety behaviors, suppression of trauma memories, and overgeneralized appraisals of danger. The results suggest that HR responses to standardized trauma-related pictures may help identify a subgroup of patients with acute PTSD who show generalized fear responses to trauma reminders. The early generalization of triggers of reexperiencing symptoms observed in this study is consistent with associative learning and cognitive models of PTSD.