Published:  2008-11-01

Self-esteem levels and cardiovascular and inflammatory responses to acute stress

Authors:  Katie O’Donnell, Lena Brydon, Caroline E. Wright, Andrew Steptoe

Tags:  Cardiovascular, Cytokine, Heart rate variability, Inflammatory, Reactivity, Self-esteem, Stress

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Acute mental stress tests have helped to clarify the pathways through which psychosocial factors are linked to disease risk. This methodology is now being used to investigate potentially protective psychosocial factors. We investigated whether global self-esteem might buffer cardiovascular and inflammatory responses to acute stress. One hundred and one students completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) were recorded for 5min periods at baseline, during two mental stress tasks, (a speech and a color-word task) and 10, 25 and 40min into a recovery period. Plasma levels of tumor-necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra) were assessed at baseline, immediately post-stress and after 45min recovery. Repeated measures analysis of variance demonstrated that heart rate levels were lower across all time points in those with high self-esteem, although heart rate reactivity to stress was not related to self-esteem. There were no differences in baseline HRV, TNF-α, IL-6 or IL-1Ra. Multiple linear regressions revealed that greater self-esteem was associated with a smaller reduction in heart rate variability during the speech task, but not the color-word task. Greater self-esteem was associated with smaller TNF-α and IL-1Ra responses immediately following acute stress and smaller IL-1Ra responses at 45min post-stress. In conclusion, global self-esteem is associated with lower heart rate and attenuated HRV and inflammatory responses to acute stress. These responses could be processes through which self-esteem protects against the development of disease.