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Heart Rate Variability and Cognitive Bias Feedback Interventions to Prevent Post‑Deployment PTSD: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial
There is a long history of pre-deployment PTSD prevention efforts in the military and effective pre-deployment strategies to prevent post-deployment PTSD are still needed.
Materials and Methods
This randomized controlled trial included three arms: heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB), cognitive bias modification for interpretation (CBM-I), and control. The hypothesis was that pre-deployment resilience training would result in lower post-deployment PTSD symptoms compared with control. Army National Guard soldiers (n = 342) were enrolled in the Warriors Achieving Resilience (WAR) study and analyzed. The outcome was PTSD symptom severity using the PTSD Checklist – Military version (PCL) measured at pre-deployment, 3- and 12-month post-deployment. Due to the repeated measures for each participant and cluster randomization at the company level, generalized linear mixed models were used for the analysis. This study was approved by the Army Human Research Protection Office, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System Institutional Review Board (IRB), and Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System IRB.
Overall, there was no significant intervention effect. However, there were significant intervention effects for subgroups of soldiers. For example, at 3-months post-deployment, the HRVB arm had significantly lower PCL scores than the control arm for soldiers with no previous combat zone exposure who were age 30and older and for soldiers with previous combat zone exposure who were 45 and older (unadjusted effect size −0.97and −1.03, respectively). A significant difference between the CBM-I and control arms was found for soldiers without previous combat zone exposure between ages 23 and 42 (unadjusted effect size −0.41). Similarly, at 12-months post deployment, the HRVB arm had significantly lower PCL scores in older soldiers.
Pre-deployment resilience training was acceptable and feasible and resulted in lower post-deployment PTSD symptom scores in subgroups of older soldiers compared with controls. Strengths of the study included cluster randomization at the company level, use of iPod device to deliver the resilience intervention throughout the deployment cycle, and minimal disruption of pre-deployment training by using self-paced resilience training. Weaknesses included self-report app use, study personnel not able to contact soldiers during deployment, and in general a low level of PTSD symptom severity throughout the study. In future studies, it would important for the study team and/or military personnel implementing the resilience training to be in frequent contact with participants to ensure proper use of the resilience training apps.