Category: Adult Anxiety

PS2- #A4 - Reinforcement Sensitivity Moderates the Relationship Between Stressor Exposure and Anxiety

Friday, Nov 17
9:45 AM – 10:45 AM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Adult Anxiety | College Students | Risk / Vulnerability Factors

Introduction: According to the American College Health Association (2014), anxiety disorders affect 21.8% of college students, surpassing depressive disorders as the most widespread mental health concern in this population. Exposure to stressful life events (SLE) can greatly exacerbate the chances for the development of anxiety symptoms. As this is not a pathognomonic association, it is important to better understand the mechanisms that lead to the development and progression of anxiety disorders. The Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality (RST) provides one potential diathesis-stress explanation for understanding the underlying mechanisms of anxiety disorders. In RST, individuals’ response to threatening or aversive stimuli are facilitated by the Fight-Flight-Freeze System (FFFS). Based on the RST theory, it was hypothesized that FFFS and SLE scores would positively predict symptoms of anxiety.

Procedure: Undergraduates attending a private urban university (N=341) completed a battery of self-report measures through a secure online survey platform (Qualtrics) at two time-points, which were approximately four weeks apart. The self-reported measures participants completed included the Revised-Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory Questionnaire (rRSTQ; Reuter, Cooper, Smillie, Markett, & Montag, 2015) which includes a FFFS subscale, the College Undergraduate Stress Scale (CUSS; Renner & Mackin, 1998) to measure SLE, and the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI; Beck, Epstein, Brown, & Steer, 1988) to measure the anxiety levels of the participants.

Results: A linear regression analysis replicated past research showing significant main effects of FFFS Sensitivity and SLE at T1 (F=4.86, pF=3.92, p < .05 respectively) on change in anxiety scores from T1 to T2. In addition, higher FFFS Sensitivity interacted with SLE when predicting change in anxiety (F=4.8, p < .05). At higher levels of FFFS, there was a stronger positive relationship between SLE exposure and anxiety symptoms.

Discussion: These preliminary findings are consistent with the literature on the RST and provide further evidence that individual sensitivity and punishment may confer risk towards the development of anxiety disorders. Future analyses will examine the relationship between other RST sensitivity variables and anxiety outcomes. Ultimately, these findings may hold long-term implications for the development of prevention and treatment techniques targeting anxiety disorders.

Nicholas W. Talisman

The George Washington University

Kelvin A. Adom

The George Washington University

Sage K. Hess

The George Washington University

Kara N. Meadows

The George Washington University

Cynthia A. Rohrbeck

Associate Professor of Psychology
The George Washington University