Wenzel, Maya


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Nature-Based Relaxation Videos and Their Effect on Heart Rate Variability

2022, Benz, Annika B. E., Gärtner, Raphaela, Meier, Maria, Unternaehrer, Eva, Scharndke, Simona, Jupe, Clara, Wenzel, Maya, Bentele, Ulrike U., Dimitroff, Stephanie J., Denk, Bernadette F., Pruessner, Jens C.

Growing evidence suggests that natural environments - whether in outdoor or indoor settings - foster psychological health and physiological relaxation, indicated by increased wellbeing, reduced stress levels, and increased parasympathetic activity. Greater insight into differential psychological aspects modulating psychophysiological responses to nature-based relaxation videos could help understand modes of action and develop personalized relaxation interventions. We investigated heart rate variability (HRV) as an indicator of autonomic regulation, specifically parasympathetic activity, in response to a 10-min video intervention in two consecutive studies as well as heart rate (HR). We hypothesized that a nature-based relaxation video elicits HRV increase and HR decrease, with response magnitude being affected by aspects of early life adversity (conceptualized as low parental care and high overprotection/constraint) and trait mindfulness. In Study 1, N = 60 participants (52% female, age mean = 23.92 ± 3.13 years, age range = 18-34 years) watched a relaxation video intervention depicting different natural scenery. We analyzed changes in HR and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) as a standard HRV measure, both based on 3-min segments from the experimental session, in multiple growth curve models. We found a decrease in HR and increase of RSA during the video intervention. Higher paternal care and lower trait mindfulness observing skills (assessed via questionnaires) were associated with higher RSA values before but not during video exposure. In Study 2, N = 90 participants (50% female, age mean = 22.63 ± 4.57 years, age range = 18-49 years) were assigned to three video conditions: natural scenery from Study 1, meditation video, or short clip from "The Lord of the Rings." Again, HR decreased, and RSA increased during video segments, yet without expected group differences across different video types. We found higher parental care and lower parental overprotection to predict higher RSA at different times during the experiment. Interestingly, lower paternal overprotection predicted overall higher RSA. These results suggest a generic relaxation effect of video interventions on autonomic regulation that we discuss in light of different theories mapping restorative effects of natural environments. Further, psychological characteristics like aspects of early life adversity and trait mindfulness could contribute to individual differences in autonomic regulation. This study contributes to a better understanding of autonomic and psychological responses to relaxation videos.


Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory : a block randomized, controlled trial

2020-09-08, Meier, Maria, Unternaehrer, Eva, Dimitroff, Stephanie J., Benz, Annika B. E., Bentele, Ulrike U., Schorpp, Sabine M., Wenzel, Maya, Pruessner, Jens C.

Health and disease are strongly linked to psychophysiological states. While stress research strongly benefits from standardized stressors, no established protocol focuses on the induction of psychophysiological relaxation. To maintain health, functioning regenerative systems are however likely as important as functioning stress systems. Thus, the identification of validated relaxation paradigms is needed. Here, we investigated whether standardized massages are capable of reliably inducing physiological and psychological states of relaxation. Relaxation was indicated by changes in high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), a vagally-mediated heart rate variability component, and repeated ratings of subjective relaxation, and stress levels. Sixty healthy women were randomly assigned to a vagus nerve massage (n = 19), a soft shoulder massage (n = 22), or a resting control group (n = 19). During the intervention, HF-HRV and subjective relaxation increased, while subjective stress decreased significantly in all groups. Both massage interventions elicited significantly higher HF-HRV compared to the control group. Accordingly, both massage protocols increased psychophysiological relaxation, and may serve as useful tools in future research. However, future work will have to determine which of several protocols might be used as a gold standard to induce a psychophysiological state of relaxation in the laboratory.


The Opposite of Stress : The Relationship Between Vagal Tone, Creativity, and Divergent Thinking

2020-03, Meier, Maria, Unternaehrer, Eva, Schorpp, Sabine M., Wenzel, Maya, Benz, Annika B. E., Bentele, Ulrike U., Dimitroff, Stephanie J., Denk, Bernadette F., Pruessner, Jens C.

Cognition is affected by psychophysiological states. While the influence of stress on cognition has been investigated intensively, less studies have addressed how the opposite of stress, a state of relaxation, affects cognition. We investigated whether the extent of parasympathetic activation is positively related to divergent thinking. Sixty healthy female participants were randomly allocated to a standardized vagus nerve massage (n = 19), a standardized soft shoulder massage (n = 22), or a resting control group (n = 19). Subsequently, participants completed the Alternative Uses Test (AUT), a measure of divergent thinking. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a vagally mediated heart rate variability component, was monitored throughout the experiment. The area under the curve with respect to the increase was calculated for RSA trajectories as an indicator of vagal tone during the relaxing intervention. Regressions tested the effect of vagal tone on AUT outcomes. We found an association between vagal tone and subsequent AUT outcomes. Yet, this association was no longer significant when controlling for the effect of the creative potential of an individual, which was strongly related to AUT outcomes. Being exploratory, we found a positive association between creative potential and vagal tone. These results imply that creative potential might be related to the capacity to relax.