Does reappraisal aid cardiovascular habituation to stress?
Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy that involves reframing an emotion-eliciting or stress-eliciting situation in a different way in order to change the downstream emotional response.
Within the stress optimization literature, participants are instructed to use reappraisal to change their perceptions of stress. For example, they are told to view stress as something positive and adaptive, and to see signs of stress (such as a beating heart and sweaty palms) as an indication that their body is adapting to the stressor and helping them perform better (1). Instructions to reappraise have led to better performance on a range of tasks inside and outside of the laboratory (2). Furthermore, reappraisal instructions tend to change physiological responses to stress. Participants instructed to use reappraisal have demonstrated a challenge-oriented cardiovascular response during a range of stress tasks (indexed by greater cardiac output, and lower total peripheral resistance)3. However, this is typically in response to a single novel stressor.
When we think about the stress we face in day-to-day life, it tends to be recurrent, such as traffic jams, interpersonal conflicts, deadlines. Indeed, a body of research has proposed that we should examine cardiovascular responses to recurrent stress, and that this could be more telling of the longer-term consequences of stress on physical health. For instance, some people are thought to show a more healthful response to recurrent stress. These people, known as habituators, successfully mount a stress response (e.g., show an increase in blood pressure) on the first exposure to a stress task (e.g., speech task/maths task) - this shows their bodies are preparing to cope with the stressor. However, when these individuals encounter the task for a second time the stress response they show, in terms of blood pressure, is lower. They simply don’t react as much to the second task – they have adapted (or habituated) to the stressor. Another group of people, do not show cardiovascular habituation to stress. Instead, when they face a stress task for the second time they actually demonstrate greater blood pressure reactivity than that elicited during the first task – they seem to be getting more stressed! This is known as sensitization (4). This type of response is thought to put wear-and-tear on our blood vessels leading to an increased risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes in the longer-term.
The present study was the first to examine if instructed reappraisal would aid cardiovascular habituation to stress, i.e., would people instructed to use reappraisal show lower blood pressure responses during a second stress exposure? If so, this would suggest reappraisal protects against recurrent stress. We employed a standardised laboratory cardiovascular habituation paradigm. Participants completed a speech task and then, after a 10-minute rest, heard either reappraisal or control instructions before completing the task for a second time.
We expected that individuals who received reappraisal instructions would show (i) greater cardiovascular habituation to the second task (i.e., lower blood pressure) compared to the control group, and (ii) this response would be underpinned by a challenge-oriented cardiovascular response (compared to the control group, but also compared to their responses to the first task). We used more sophisticated methods to examine challenge-oriented responses, employing the HP-CD model (5) and the challenge-threat index (6); and we compared these two indices of challenge/threat responses. We also examined if the tendency to engage in reappraisal in day-to-day life (i.e., trait reappraisal) would influence responses.
A total of 173 young adults completed the laboratory paradigm in full. The results showed that:
There were no differences between the control and reappraisal group in response to the second task – both groups showed similar cardiovascular habituation to the second task and similar task performance.
When we looked at within-participant changes for those in the reappraisal group, reappraisal instructions did not lead to a challenge-oriented response. This was confirmed in three ways: (i) by examining general patterns of CO and TPR responding, (ii) via the HP-CD model, and (iii) via the challenge-threat index.
We also found no relationship between trait reappraisal, instructed reappraisal, and cardiovascular habituation.
We extend research in the challenge/threat literature by showing that the HP-CD model and challenge-threat index appear to classify cardiovascular responses in a similar way
The results somewhat question the utility of the benefits of reappraisal, at least in the context of recurrent stress. Further research is needed to replicate the present findings. We present a number of directions for future research, including the need to examine the timing of reappraisal instructions.
Find the full paper here for more details: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/psyp.13783
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