The role of stress reactivity and pre-injury psychosocial vulnerability to psychological and physical health immediately after traumatic injury

Ilaria Pozzato*, Yvonne Tran, Bamini Gopinath, Ranjit A. Thuraisingham, Ian D. Cameron, Ashley Craig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Traumatic injuries can have long-term negative impacts on health, especially psychological health. A biopsychosocial approach is recommended to identify those likely to experience psychosocial stress, however large individual differences exist in stress reactivity and post-injury health that remain unexplored. Therefore, we investigated autonomic nervous system (ANS) stress responses and pre-existing psychosocial vulnerability as contributors to health in individuals who sustained a traffic-related injury. Methods: 120 adults with traffic-related injury and 112 non-injury controls underwent an integrative ANS (cardiac and skin conductance) assessment and a health-related assessment at 3–6 weeks post-injury. Propensity score matching based on six pre-injury psychosocial vulnerability factors (age, sex, education, prior mental/physical health, socioeconomic status) guided the definition of high vulnerability (HV) and low vulnerability (LV) injury subgroups, with the LV subgroup having similar propensity scores to non-injury controls. A three-group comparative analysis of ANS responsivity (baseline, reactivity, recovery/rebound) and post-injury health was performed. Results: The HV subgroup exhibited the most negative immediate post-injury mental health profile and less adaptive ANS response patterns, indicating greater stress vulnerability/reactivity. Significant differences were found for psychological health (elevated psychological distress and catastrophizing), but not physical health (injury factors, pain, fatigue, physical wellbeing). HV participants showed sympathetic predominance at resting baseline (lower parasympathetic activity and/or elevated heart rate) compared to the LV and control groups, as well as smaller parasympathetic decrease during a cognitive task compared to controls. Despite preserved capacity for restoring initial homeostasis in both injury subgroups during recovery, there was some indication of blunted post-task sympathetic deactivation (larger sympathetic decrease) and reduced overall ANS adaptability (reduction in total power of heart rate variability spectrum), suggesting relative reduced capacity to face stressors compared to controls. Conclusions: Findings suggest that baseline resting ANS regulation, particularly parasympathetic activity, and pre-injury psychosocial factors are key contributors to individual psycho-biological responses following traumatic injury, and are therefore potential stress vulnerability markers. Post-stress recovery patterns may represent a novel physiological signature for a “biological intrinsic” vulnerability early after the injury. These findings provide direction for improved early identification and management of injured individuals, including innovative preventive interventions that target ANS regulation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105190
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
Early online date4 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Mar 2021


  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Health
  • Injury
  • Psychological distress
  • Stress reactivity

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