To evaluate the impact of acute stress and relationship-focused imagery on cardiac vagal control, as indicated by levels of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), in depressed and nondepressed women. Impairment in cardiac parasympathetic (vagal) control may confer risk for cardiac mortality in depressed populations.
Electrocardiogram and respiratory rate were evaluated in 15 nonmedicated depressed women and 15 matched controls during two laboratory conditions: 1) a relationship-focused imagery designed to elicit vagal activation; and 2) a speech stressor designed to evoke vagal withdrawal.
As expected, the relationship-focused imagery increased RSA (F(3,66) = 3.79, p = .02) and the speech stressor decreased RSA (F(3,66) = 4.36, p = .02) across women. Depressed women exhibited lower RSA during the relationship-focused imagery, and this effect remained after control for respiratory rate and trauma history (F(1,21) = 5.65, p = .027). Depressed women with a trauma history exhibited the lowest RSA during the stress condition (F(1,22) = 9.61, p = .05). However, after controlling for respiratory rate, Trauma History × Task Order (p = .02) but not Trauma History × Depression Group (p = .12) accounted for RSA variation during the stress condition.
Depression in women is associated with lower RSA, particularly when women reflect on a close love relationship, a context expected to elicit vagal activation and hence increase RSA. In contrast, depression-related variation in stressor-evoked vagal activity seems to covary with women's trauma history. Associations between vagal activity and depression are complex and should be considered in view of the experimental conditions under which vagal control is assessed, as well as physiological and behavioral factors that may affect vagal function.
MDD = major depressive disorder;
RSA = respiratory sinus arrhythmia;
ECG = electrocardiogram;
HRSD = Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression;
GAD = generalized anxiety disorder;
PTSD = posttraumatic stress disorder