This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Autonomic physiology of social anxiety in preadolescence




Kaeppler, Alexander

Type of Degree

Master's Thesis


Human Development and Family Studies


The present study sought to build on prior research by examining within-system (sympathetic nervous system (SNS) x SNS) and cross-system (SNS x parasympathetic nervous system) interactions between measures of autonomic reactivity to social stress as predictors of social anxiety. The physiological responses (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA; skin conductance level, SCL; and pre-ejection period, PEP) of 123 early adolescents (Mage = 12.03 years) were measured continuously during a lab protocol designed to simulate common peer evaluation experiences. Reactivity scores were examined as predictors of social anxiety, as were the interactions between autonomic reactivity scores. Preadolescents completed measures of global social anxiety and real-time, context-specific social anxiety during the peer-evaluative stress protocol. Analyses revealed only a trend-level association between RSAR and global social anxiety, consistent with previous findings of blunted RSAR among socially anxious youth. In addition, whereas cross-system interactions were not associated with either measure of social anxiety, the interaction between PEPR and SCLR was associated with context-specific social anxiety. A significant positive association was observed between PEPR and context-specific social anxiety at higher levels of SCLR but not lower levels of SCLR. Similarly, a significant positive association was observed between SCLR and context-specific social anxiety at higher levels of PEPR but not lower levels of PEPR. An increase in SCL and shortening of PEP may reflect SNS hyperreactivity to social-evaluative stress and contribute to concurrent social anxiety.