Rhythm of your heart holds the key to treating trauma

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Knowing how your heart beats can help identify the best way to treat post-traumatic stress.

Researchers from Murdoch University have discovered that a simple measure of heart rate variability, taken at rest or during sleep, can identify a person’s optimal treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Dr Danielle Mathersul from Murdoch’s School of Psychology says the measure of heart rate variability (HRV) determines which treatment is going to make a difference for patients.

“Lower heart rate variability is reflective of poorer autonomic function. These people had a better treatment response with yoga,” Dr Mathersul said. 

“In contrast, people with higher heart rate variability, which is reflective of better autonomic function, had a better treatment response with trauma-focused therapy.” 

Autonomic functions include control of breathing, cardiac regulation, vasomotor activity, and certain reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, and swallowing. 

“These findings show us that the measure of heart rate variability could be used in clinical practice to personalise PTSD treatment, helping clinicians recommend the most effective treatment for individuals, right from the start. And it takes less than 10 minutes to measure!” 

Dr Mathersul’s study Emotion regulation and heart rate variability may identify the optimal posttraumatic stress disorder treatment: Analyses from a randomized controlled trial was published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal Special Issue on Neuropsychiatric Disorders in the Veterans Volume II: Emerging Evidence of Precision Medicine and Complementary and Integrative Health (CIH) Approaches.  

“Our findings would be particularly useful to apply to first responder groups, alongside the veteran community which we studied, but are also relevant to members of the general population experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and trying to find what works best for them,” Dr Mathersul said. 

“Trial and error is fine, but people have the best chance of recovery if they receive a full dose, in a timely manner, of the most effective treatment for them.  

“By using personalised or precision medicine factors like these, we can help them to feel some relief sooner, and that’s the ideal outcome.”  

This research supports United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.

Learn more about how Murdoch's School of Psychology is advancing psychology and improving lives. 

Posted on:

21 Feb 2024

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