Low vagal tone magnifies the association between psychosocial stress exposure and internalizing psychopathology in adolescents


McLaughlin, K. A., Rith-Najarian, L., Dirks, M. A., & Sheridan, M. A. (2015). Low vagal tone magnifies the association between psychosocial stress exposure and internalizing psychopathology in adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology: The Official Journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53 , 44 (2), 314–328.


Vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that facilitates adaptive responses to environmental challenge. Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and attentional regulation in children and has been conceptualized as a marker of sensitivity to stress. We investigated whether the associations of a wide range of psychosocial stressors with internalizing and externalizing psychopathology were magnified in adolescents with low vagal tone. Resting heart period data were collected from a diverse community sample of adolescents (ages 13-17; N = 168). Adolescents completed measures assessing internalizing and externalizing psychopathology and exposure to stressors occurring in family, peer, and community contexts. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) was calculated from the interbeat interval time series. We estimated interactions between RSA and stress exposure in predicting internalizing and externalizing symptoms and evaluated whether interactions differed by gender. Exposure to psychosocial stressors was associated strongly with psychopathology. RSA was unrelated to internalizing or externalizing problems. Significant interactions were observed between RSA and child abuse, community violence, peer victimization, and traumatic events in predicting internalizing but not externalizing symptoms. Stressors were positively associated with internalizing symptoms in adolescents with low RSA but not in those with high RSA. Similar patterns were observed for anxiety and depression. These interactions were more consistently observed for male than female individuals. Low vagal tone is associated with internalizing psychopathology in adolescents exposed to high levels of stressors. Measurement of vagal tone in clinical settings might provide useful information about sensitivity to stress in child and adolescent clients.

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