Category: Adult Anxiety - Social
Social-evaluative threat is capable of eliciting psychobiological responses, including self-conscious emotion and cortisol. The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is a widely examined paradigm for social-evaluative threat and involves giving a speech and performing a math task in front of an evaluative panel. Trait mindfulness and viewing stress as adaptive have been shown to buffer psychobiological reactivity to the TSST. In contrast, behavioral inhibition (BI) and anxiety sensitivity (AS) are characterized by threat and experiential avoidance, which should theoretically heighten reactivity. Therefore, the present study was designed to examine the hypotheses that: 1) BI and AS would be strongly correlated with each other and negatively correlated with trait mindfulness, and 2) BI and AS would be associated with exaggerated cortisol, somatic distress, and self-conscious emotion while stress reappraisal and mindfulness would buffer these responses to the TSST.
This study was part of a larger experiment in which participants (N = 62) were randomly assigned to complete the TSST after receiving a stress reappraisal or lay beliefs prime involving readings about the adaptive nature or harmful effects of stress, respectively. After the TSST, participants were randomized to either rest or practice mindful breathing. All analyses appropriately controlled for conditions. Consistent with hypotheses, BI and AS were strongly correlated with each other and negatively correlated with trait mindfulness. Both stress reappraisal and higher trait mindfulness were associated with lower cortisol, somatic distress, and self-conscious emotion responses during the TSST. Mindful breathing was associated with faster cortisol recovery. Further, AS and BI were positively associated with self-conscious emotion and anxiety and AS was associated with greater somatic distress. Contrary to hypotheses, BI and AS were associated with lower cortisol and BI was not associated with somatic distress.
Individual differences exposed the protective nature of mindfulness during stress even in the context of stress reappraisal. The paradox that BI and AS were generally associated with greater psychological reactivity but lower cortisol may be explained by their relation to depression. BI and AS play a role in the development of anxiety and depression, which have been linked to HPA axis dysregulation. Higher BI and AS may have previously been associated with exaggerated cortisol reactivity that contributed to HPA axis dysregulation over time and blunted cortisol responses in this study. Building trait mindfulness through consistent practice, combined with stress reappraisal, may simultaneously decrease BI and AS to buffer psychobiological reactivity to stress and normalize HPA axis functioning.