This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Linking Social Anxiety and Autonomic Responses to Social Stress in Preadolescence




Kaeppler, Alexander

Type of Degree

Master's Thesis


Human Development and Family Studies


A substantial body of theoretical literature suggests that social anxiety may be related to abnormal or inflexible autonomic nervous system activity. In recent years, this notion has been corroborated by several empirical studies, though contrasting evidence exists. Modest and inconsistent associations between social anxiety and psychophysiology may reflect discordance across subjective and physiological dimensions of emotion, or limitations and differences in the methods or analyses used across studies. To address these limitations, the physiological responses (heart rate, HR; respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA; skin conductance level, SCL; and pre-ejection period, PEP) of 123 preadolescents (Mage = 12.03 years; 50% females; 42% ethnic minorities) were measured continuously during a lab protocol designed to simulate common peer evaluation experiences, and growth in each physiological variable was examined across the full lab protocol and during two unique stages of social stress. Preadolescents also provided reports of global social anxiety on a well-validated questionnaire as well as context-specific anxiety during the peer evaluation protocol. Latent growth model analyses indicated that context-specific anxiety was associated with more dynamic HR responses across the full lab protocol and during the second stage of social stress, as well as differences in growth for RSA during the first stage of social stress. Global social anxiety, however, was related to slightly reduced SCL reactivity to stress and blunted SCL recovery following social stress in all analyses. Findings may point to the need for theoretical models that consider the context in which physiological responses are measured, as well as potential differences in context-specific and global measures of social anxiety.