Associations between respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity and internalizing and externalizing symptoms are emotion specific

  • Christine K. Fortunato
  • Lisa M. Gatzke-Kopp
  • Nilam Ram


Internalizing and externalizing disorders are often, though inconsistently in studies of young children, associated with low baseline levels of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). RSA is thus considered to reflect the capacity for flexible and regulated affective reactivity and a general propensity for psychopathology. However, studies assessing RSA reactivity to emotional challenges tend to report more consistent associations with internalizing than with externalizing disorders, although it is unclear whether this is a function of the type of emotion challenges used. In the present study, we examined whether baseline RSA was associated with internalizing and/or externalizing severity in a sample of 273 young children (ages 5–6) with elevated symptoms of psychopathology. Following motivation-based models of emotion, we also tested whether RSA reactivity during withdrawal-based (fear, sadness) and approach-based (happiness, anger) emotion inductions was differentially associated with internalizing and externalizing symptoms, respectively. Baseline RSA was not associated with externalizing or internalizing symptom severity. However, RSA reactivity to specific emotional challenges was associated differentially with each symptom domain. As expected, internalizing symptom severity was associated with greater RSA withdrawal (increased arousal) during fearful and sad film segments. Conversely, externalizing symptom severity was related to blunted RSA withdrawal during a happy film segment. The use of theoretically derived stimuli may be important in characterizing the nature of the deficits in emotion processing that differentiate the internalizing and externalizing domains of psychopathology.


Emotion Respiratory sinus arrhythmia Parasympathetic nervous system Psychopathology Internalizing Externalizing 


Author note

Funding for this research and analysis was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Social Science Research Institute at Pennsylvania State University, and the National Institute on Aging, Grant No. RC1-AG035645. The authors thank Cynthia Willner, David DuPuis, Heather Wadlinger, and Liza Oakes for their contributions to the data processing, as well as Jennifer Ford for her exceptional project management. The authors also acknowledge Mark Greenberg, Karen Bierman, Robert Nix, and Michael Coccia for their roles in designing, executing, overseeing, and managing the project from which these data are drawn.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christine K. Fortunato
    • 1
  • Lisa M. Gatzke-Kopp
    • 1
  • Nilam Ram
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Human Development and Family StudiesPennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for Human DevelopmentBerlinGermany

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