Stress reactivity and stress response styles provide insight into emotional vulnerability. Research has indicated that heightened or blunted physiological stress reactions can predict risk for psychological and physical health challenges, including heart disease, depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems. Although there has been a wealth of research examining the stress response of adolescents, little attention has been given to prepubescent stress response. Because many changes occur in the transition from childhood and adolescence, Brittany E. Evans of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/Psychology at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands wanted to take a closer look at the differences in stress responses in these two groups of young people. She also wanted to see what factors affected stress reactivity in both age groups.
Evans assessed the cortisol levels, respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), heart rate, and perceived physiological stress (PPS) of 344 adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 20, and 363 children between the ages of 7 and 12. She looked at stress response, stress anticipation, socioeconomic status (SES), parenting styles, tobacco use, gender, and personality traits as factors related to stress reactivity.
Evans found that emotionally warm parenting lowered cortisol response in children, while high sociability, emotionality, and urbanicity lowered cortisol levels in adolescents. The youngest children with shy personalities and high levels of parental rejection had elevated levels of PPS. Adolescents with high PPS had parents with inconsistent parenting discipline and overprotective traits. These adolescents were also more likely to use tobacco. Additionally, girls were more susceptible to stress reactions than boys.
One interesting finding was that overall, the adolescents experienced more PPS than the children. In fact, the stress levels of the children dropped significantly during the stressor while the adolescents had less anticipatory stress, but higher stress during the task. Evans believes that adolescents may plan their reactions to impending stressors while children, who have fewer planning skills, exhibit a more physiological response to the anticipation of stress. Evans also discovered that the children from low SES and high urban areas had more blunted stress responses.
Perhaps the demands of their environments make them more resilient to the effects of stress. The findings of this study are unique and show that stress reaction is quite different in children than in adolescents. Understanding the factors that affect stress in these groups can illuminate vulnerability for negative stress outcomes. Evans added, “Our study provides an overview and indication of which variables should be considered in the investigation of the relation between physiological stress indices and illness.”
Evans, B.E., Greaves-Lord, K., Euser, A.S., Tulen, J.H.M., Franken, I.H.A., et al. (2013). Determinants of physiological and perceived physiological stress reactivity in children and adolescents. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61724. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061724
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