Elevated Heart Rate May Predict Fear Circuitry Dysfunction

The DSM-V is proposing a new category of anxiety disorders that would include social anxiety, generalized anxiety (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress (PTSD), social phobia, and agoraphobia. These would be identified as fear circuitry disorders. Existing research has demonstrated that fear circuitry dysfunction may be the result of how a person responds to a traumatic event. Studies have indicated that individuals who have a highly negative reaction to trauma are at heightened risk for psychological problems, including panic. One of the measures used to assess response is heart rate (HR). To better understand this, Richard A. Bryant, a professor at the School of Psychology and Faculty of Science at the University of new South Wales in Australia, conducted a study assessing the HR of individuals who were exposed to trauma.

For his study, Bryant evaluated 528 adults admitted to trauma centers. He reviewed their HRs at time of admission and 30 days and 90 days later. Bryant assessed the participants for levels of PTSD, anxiety, GAD, OCD, panic, social phobia, agoraphobia. and depression. He found that at 90 days posttrauma, 15% of the participants had developed a fear circuitry impairment, and 17% had developed other mental health problems. The results showed that the individuals who had an increased HR upon admission to the trauma center were most likely to develop a problem related to anxiety, including PTSD, agoraphobia, panic disorder, or social phobia. However, those with high HRs at the time of trauma were not at increased risk for depression.

This study is among the first to reveal a possible link between elevated response to trauma as measured by HR and the possible onset of fear circuitry impairment. Bryant pointed out that more research needs to be done in this area to identify which individuals would be most likely to have difficulty with fear response, regardless of whether or not they survived a traumatic experience. Additionally, Bryant believes future studies should address if elevated HR response is an accurate predictor of vulnerability in individuals who are already genetically predisposed to anxiety issues. He also thinks that environmental factors should be considered in future research. Bryant added, “Nonetheless, the finding of elevated HR in those who develop fear circuitry disorders is consistent with fear conditioning being one possible mechanism by which individuals may develop this group of anxiety disorders.”

Bryant, RA, Creamer, M., O’Donnell, M., Silove, D., McFarlane, A.C. Heart Rate After Trauma and the Specificity of Fear Circuitry Disorders. Psychological Medicine41.12 (2011): 2573-580. Print.

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  • Jim Martin

    Jim Martin

    March 12th, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    I still don’t understand why there are some of us who are naturally hard wired to deal with anxiety with an elevated heart rate and such while others of us are better equipped to go with the flow and relax a little more. I do like the idea stated here that more attention should be paid to the environmental factors that could have contributed to this kind of reaction, leading me to feel like maybe if we better knew what was going to set someone off then we could do a better job of trying to avoid those things.

  • Uley


    March 12th, 2012 at 5:54 PM

    While it makes sense that if one is experiencing one of these types of disorders their heart rate would be higher, it is kind of difficult to imagine how simply having an elevated HR could cause it

  • Sally


    March 12th, 2012 at 10:48 PM

    Not really surprised. An increase in heart rate is often due to fear or anxiety and this is somewhat related.

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