Published:  2016-10-01

Cardiovascular reactivity as a mechanism linking child trauma to adolescent psychopathology

Authors:  Charlotte Heleniak, Katie A. McLaughlin, Johan Ormel, Harriette Riese

Tags:  Adolescence, Cardiovascular system, Child maltreatment, Externalizing, Internalizing, Stress reactivity, Trauma

Go to source (DOI)

Alterations in physiological reactivity to stress are argued to be central mechanisms linking adverse childhood environmental experiences to internalizing and externalizing psychopathology. Childhood trauma exposure may influence physiological reactivity to stress in distinct ways from other forms of childhood adversity. This study applied a novel theoretical model to investigate the impact of childhood trauma on cardiovascular stress reactivity – the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat. This model suggests that inefficient cardiovascular responses to stress – a threat as opposed to challenge profile – are characterized by blunted cardiac output (CO) reactivity and increased vascular resistance. We examined whether childhood trauma exposure predicted an indicator of the threat profile of cardiovascular reactivity and whether such a pattern was associated with adolescent psychopathology in a population-representative sample of 488 adolescents (M=16.17years old, 49.2% boys) in the TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). Exposure to trauma was associated with both internalizing and externalizing symptoms and a pattern of cardiovascular reactivity consistent with the threat profile, including blunted CO reactivity during a social stress task. Blunted CO reactivity, in turn, was positively associated with externalizing, but not internalizing symptoms and mediated the link between trauma and externalizing psychopathology. None of these associations varied by gender. The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat provides a novel theoretical framework for understanding disruptions in physiological reactivity to stress following childhood trauma exposure, revealing a potential pathway linking such exposure with externalizing problems in adolescents.