One of the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) is stress. Whether psychological or physiological, stress can elevate ambulatory blood pressure (ABP) in healthy individuals, posing a risk factor for CVD. This dynamic has been replicated in some research studies conducted in laboratory settings. Socio-evaluative threats, which include threats to appearance, self-esteem, ability, and inclusion and acceptance by others, affected both men and women similarly in these studies. However, Timothy W. Smith of the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah wanted to determine if these same socio-evaluative threats would pose the same risk for CVD in healthy adults in a real world setting. Smith and colleagues theorized that healthy adults would have momentary fluctuations in ABP as they experienced threats to their confidence or physical appearance and threats of other nature.
For his study, Smith evaluated 94 married adult couples by measuring their blood pressure over the course of 14 hours using a Palm Pilot. The ABP was evaluated each time a participant was exposed to a threat pertaining to ability or appearance or any other socio-evaluative threats. The researchers found that socio-evaluative threats did indeed increase ABP, but threats directly aimed at appearance or ability did not. Smith also discovered that gender influenced the type of elevation in blood pressure. Specifically, women realized a larger elevation in diastolic blood pressure than men. This suggests that the socio-evaluative threats perceived by women are more closely linked with an increased impairment in vascular activity, which can directly impact cardiac functioning. Because both psychological and physiological stress have such a significant influence on physical health, Smith believes the findings of his study are paramount to protecting physical health and preventing the development of CVD. He added, “Such associations between social-evaluative threat and physiological response during daily experience provide important support for conceptual models in which chronic or recurring threats to the social self potentially undermine physical health.” He hopes his study will lead to further research that targets interventions for individuals at risk of elevated ABP from socio-evaluative threat-induced stress.
Smith, T. W., Birmingham, W., Uchino, B. N. (2012, January 16). Evaluative Threat and Ambulatory Blood Pressure: Cardiovascular Effects of Social Stress in Daily Experience. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026947
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