Objective. Stressors have been related to medically insufficiently explained or functional somatic symptoms (FSS). However, the underlying mechanism of this association is largely unclear. In the current study, we examined whether FSS are associated with different perceived stress and cardiac autonomic nervous system (ANS) levels during a standardized stressful situation, and whether these associations are symptom-specific. Methods. We examined 715 adolescents (16.1 years, 51.3% girls) from the Dutch cohort study Tracking Adolescents' Individual Lives Sample during the Groningen Social Stress Test (GSST). FSS were assessed by the Youth Self-Report, and clustered into a cluster of overtiredness, dizziness and musculoskeletal pain and a cluster of headache and gastrointestinal symptoms. Perceived stress levels (i.e. unpleasantness and arousal) were assessed by the Self-Assessment Manikin, and cardiac ANS activity by assessing heart rate variability (HRV-HF) and pre-ejection period (PEP). Perceived stress and cardiac ANS levels before, during, and after the GSST were studied as well as cardiac ANS reactivity. Linear regression analyses were used to examine the associations. Results. Perceived arousal levels during (beta = 0.09, p = 0.04) and after (beta = 0.07, p = 0.047) the GSST, and perceived unpleasantness levels before (beta = 0.07, p = 0.048) and during (beta = 0.12, p = 0.001) the GSST were related to FSS during the past couple of months. The association between perceived stress and FSS was stronger for the FSS cluster of overtiredness, dizziness and musculoskeletal pain than for the cluster of headache and gastrointestinal symptoms. Neither ANS activity levels before, during, and after the GSST, nor maximal HF-HRV and PEP reactivity were related to FSS. Conclusions. This study suggests that perceived stress levels during social stress are related to FSS, whereas cardiac ANS activity and reactivity are not related to FSS.
Alterations in physiological reactivity to stress are argued to be central mechanisms linking adverse childhood environmental experiences to internalizing and externalizing psychopathology. Childhood trauma exposure may influence physiological reactivity to stress in distinct ways from other forms of childhood adversity. This study applied a novel theoretical model to investigate the impact of childhood trauma on cardiovascular stress reactivity - the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat. This model suggests that inefficient cardiovascular responses to stress - a threat as opposed to challenge profile - are characterized by blunted cardiac output (CO) reactivity and increased vascular resistance. We examined whether childhood trauma exposure predicted an indicator of the threat profile of cardiovascular reactivity and whether such a pattern was associated with adolescent psychopathology in a population-representative sample of 488 adolescents (M=16.17years old, 49.2% boys) in the TRacking Adolescents' Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). Exposure to trauma was associated with both internalizing and externalizing symptoms and a pattern of cardiovascular reactivity consistent with the threat profile, including blunted CO reactivity during a social stress task. Blunted CO reactivity, in turn, was positively associated with externalizing, but not internalizing symptoms and mediated the link between trauma and externalizing psychopathology. None of these associations varied by gender. The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat provides a novel theoretical framework for understanding disruptions in physiological reactivity to stress following childhood trauma exposure, revealing a potential pathway linking such exposure with externalizing problems in adolescents.
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