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Heart Rate Variability Moderates the Effects of COVID-19-Related Stress and Family Adversity on Emotional Problems in Adolescents: Testing Models of Differential Susceptibility and Diathesis Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique period of stress, uncertainty, and adversity that will have significant implications for adolescent mental health. Nevertheless, stress and adversity related to COVID-19 may be more consequential for some adolescents’ mental health than for others. We examined whether heart rate variability (HRV) indicated differential susceptibility to mental health difficulties associated with COVID-19 stress and COVID-19 family adversity. Approximately four years prior to the pandemic, we assessed resting HRV and HRV reactivity to a well-validated stress paradigm in 87 adolescents. During the pandemic, these adolescents (ages 13-19) reported on their health-related stress and concerns about COVID-19, family adversity related to COVID-19, and their recent emotional problems. The association between COVID-19 stress and emotional problems was significantly stronger for adolescents who previously exhibited higher resting HRV or higher HRV reactivity. For adolescents who exhibited lower resting HRV or HRV augmentation, COVID-19 stress was not associated with emotional problems. Conversely, lower resting HRV indicated vulnerability to the effect of COVID-19 family adversity on emotional problems. Different patterns of parasympathetic functioning may reflect differential susceptibility to the effects of COVID-19 stress versus vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19 family adversity on mental health during the pandemic.

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