Autonomic complexity and emotion (dys-)regulation in early childhood across high- and low-risk contexts

Daniel Berry, Alyssa R. Palmer, Rebecca Distefano, Ann S. Masten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Developing the ability to regulate one's emotions in accordance with contextual demands (i.e., emotion regulation) is a central developmental task of early childhood. These processes are supported by the engagement of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a physiological hub of a vast network tasked with dynamically integrating real-time experiential inputs with internal motivational and goal states. To date, much of what is known about the ANS and emotion regulation has been based on measures of respiratory sinus arrhythmia, a cardiac indicator of parasympathetic activity. In the present study, we draw from dynamical systems models to introduce two nonlinear indices of cardiac complexity (fractality and sample entropy) as potential indicators of these broader ANS dynamics. Using data from a stratified sample of preschoolers living in high- (i.e., emergency homeless shelter) and low-risk contexts (N = 115), we show that, in conjunction with respiratory sinus arrhythmia, these nonlinear indices may help to clarify important differences in the behavioral manifestations of emotion regulation. In particular, our results suggest that cardiac complexity may be especially useful for discerning active, effortful emotion regulation from less effortful regulation and dysregulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1173-1190
Number of pages18
JournalDevelopment and psychopathology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019.


  • autonomic nervous system
  • dynamical systems
  • emotion regulation
  • entropy
  • fractal
  • respiratory sinus arrhythmia


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