Differences in stress biomarkers in women with high and low stress appraisal

Clarissa Sara Gomez, University of Texas at El Paso


Measures of physiological biomarkers have been widely used in the field of stress research to explain how stress negatively impacts health outcomes. Women in particular have been shown to be more at risk for developing physiological and psychological stress-induced conditions (e.g., hypertension, depression) due to hormonal differences (Kirschbaum et al., 1992), but more importantly, because of their appraisal of stressful events (Schamus et al., 2008). Few studies however have examined whether women’s stress appraisal is predictive of stress reactivity, as measured by stress biomarkers, during stressful events. The goal of this study was to examine whether stress appraisal predicted stress biomarker activity level. The Appraisal of Challenge or Threat Scale (ACTS; Tomaka et al., 2002) was used to select college-age females for inclusion in one of two mutually exclusive groups including High Stress-Low Coping subjects (Group 1, N = 24) who perceived trigger events as very threatening and their ability to cope as low, and Low Stress-High Coping subjects (Group 2, N = 24) who perceived trigger events as challenging rather than threatening and their ability to cope as high. All subjects (N = 48) completed a standardized stress-induction procedure (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST) that included two stress inducing tasks. Heart rate was continuously measured and saliva samples were collected to determine alpha-amylase stress biomarker levels at 3 time points, including prior to the stress induction, after the completion of the first stress task, and after completion of the second stress task. It was hypothesized that as compared to women with low stress-high coping appraisal, women with high stress-low coping appraisal would have significantly greater reactivity (higher biomarker levels) following stress induction. A 3 x 2 mixed model ANOVA with time as the within subjects factor and group as the between subjects factor was used for the analyses. The findings showed that there was a main effect of stress induction on sAA (F(2,45) = 15.09, p = .00) and HR (F(2,45) = 68.99, p = .00) levels. Post-hoc analyses showed that significant differences in sAA and HR levels occurred only between baseline and the speech task indicating that the speech task and not the arithmetic task induced a physiological stress response. With regard to the central hypothesis, stress appraisal did not predict stress reactivity (biomarker levels) during stress induction. There was no effect of group on sAA (F(1,46) = 1.42, p = .24) or HR (F(1,46) = .00, p = .95). Furthermore, no significant interaction was seen between group and sAA (F(2,45) = .71, p = .49) or between group and HR (F(2,45) = .61, p = .55), suggesting that high stress-low coping women did not experience different amounts of sAA or HR changes as compared with low stress-high coping women. When pre- and post-test mood state (PSM-9) scores were compared by group, findings showed no significant interaction (F(1,46) = 2.48, p = 0.12), however there was a significant group effect indicating that groups differed overall for PSM scores. Paradoxically, high stress-low coping individuals had significantly lower scores before and after the TSST procedure as compared to low stress-high coping individuals (F(1,46) = 3.99, p = .05). The current findings provided valuable additional evidence that sAA is a sensitive biomarker of psychological stress. Importantly, the findings suggested that self-reported stress is not an indicator of biological stress reactivity and that self-reported stress should not be used by health care workers to determine whether subjects are at risk of stress-related disease. Furthermore, the findings suggested that high stress-low coping subjects may be vulnerable to emotional blunting. The results require replication.

Subject Area

Mental health|Womens studies|Physiological psychology

Recommended Citation

Gomez, Clarissa Sara, "Differences in stress biomarkers in women with high and low stress appraisal" (2015). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3708542.