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Early Life Influences on Acute Stress Reactivity in Young Adulthood


Stress in early life, such as experiencing physical or sexual abuse, is associated with vulnerability to chronic illnesses in adulthood including depression, lung disease, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and premature mortality. Less severe early experiences have also been linked to poor health in adulthood. Repetti, Taylor, and Seeman (2002) identified a specific cluster of family characteristics that leave children at risk for worse health in adulthood. High levels of conflict and aggression, and relationships that are cold, unsupportive, and neglectful characterize these “risky families”. How a risky family environment influences long-term health remains largely unknown. Hypothesized pathways include: (1) disruptions of the physiological stress response systems, including a hyper-reactive cardiovascular system, and (2) disruptions in psychosocial functioning, including increased threat appraisal, hostility, rejection sensitivity, and avoidant coping. The current study tests these proposed pathways by examining whether healthy young adults (N=95) that report growing up in a risky family have altered physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses to acute psychological stress. Participants completed two social stress tasks related to psychological domains thought to be altered in the context of early adversity, social conflict and negative social evaluation. Participants' emotional, behavioral, cardiovascular, autonomic nervous system, and salivary cortisol responses to these tasks were measured. Results showed that young adults from risky families demonstrated increased automatic processing of threatening stimuli, heightened anxiety, and a heightened initial systolic blood pressure response to social conflict compared to controls. We found no evidence for increased hostile attitudes or behaviors, sensitivity to rejection from a peer, or disengagement coping in individuals from risky families. In exploratory analyses that tested the impact of specific subtypes of risky family environments, we found that experiencing abuse in childhood was associated with greater sympathetic nervous system reactivity to social conflict and growing up in a chaotic home environment was associated with a dampened cortisol response to the laboratory session. Together, these results challenge and extend the risky family model, providing new directions for future research.

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