Early Life Adversity and the Stress Response System: Integrating Dimensions of Biological and Psychological Responses to Stress in Adolescence
Gruhn, Meredith Adele
Past research has established disrupted physiological reactivity to stress and poor coping and emotion regulation (ER) as mediators between early life adversity (ELA) and later psychopathology. However, most studies have examined coping and ER processes broadly (e.g., “emotion dysregulation”) and failed to integrate measures of physiology (e.g., indicators of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). The current study includes measures of ELA, specific coping and ER strategies, skin conductance level (SCL; sympathetic nervous system index), and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA; parasympathetic nervous system index) in a sample of 56 adolescents (ages 10-15; M = 12.30 years) in order to characterize biologically- and psychologically- based stress responses as a function of ELA. Results indicate that ELA is linked to lower use of secondary control coping strategies (i.e., acceptance, cognitive restructuring, distraction, positive thinking), low RSA at rest (i.e., low vagal tone) and increased SCL from baseline to a nonsocial stress task (i.e., high sympathetic reactivity). Moderated regression analyses indicate possible unique effects of coping/ER on physiology as a function of ELA, such that disengagement coping may aide in down-regulating autonomic nervous system activity at rest (low SCL, high RSA) and reappraisal may decrease the sympathetic nervous system response to conflict (high SCL-reactivity) for adolescents with higher levels of ELA only. Results are presented in relation to internalizing and externalizing problems to increase clinical relevance, and an agenda for future research is discussed. Taken together, this project provides an important step in understanding the impact of ELA on biological and psychological dimensions of the stress response system.