Assessing the psychophysiological pathways that link chronic stress with increased vulnerability for ill health

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Abstract

This programme of work investigated the psychophysiological pathways that link chronic stress with increased vulnerability for ill health. Data from study one indicated that atypical patterns of cortisol secretion, widely implicated in the aetiologies of severe pathologic conditions, partially mediated the effect of higher perceived levels of stress on greater incidences of the kinds of common health problems that typically affect young otherwise healthy individuals. As a logical next step in the programme, studies two and three looked more closely at the psychophysiological consequences of informal caregiving, one prototypical model for chronic stress. Data indicated that caring for child with autism/ADHD exacts a considerable psychophysiological toll on the carer. Indeed, relative to controls, caregivers reported increased psychological morbidity, greater incidences of ill health and reduced social support. Dysregulated immunity, manifested by higher concentrations of the inflammatory marker, C-reactive protein (CRP) was also apparent in the caregivers. In fact, caregivers’ mean concentrations of CRP satisfied clinical criterion for moderate risk of cardiovascular pathologies, compared with low risk in the controls. However, psychological morbidity and incidences of ill health were reduced in caregivers who reported greater social support. Socially supported caregivers also displayed a steeper cortisol awakening response (CAR), which is indicative of more adaptive endocrine functioning. Therefore, interventions that enhance social connectivity might be effective for alleviating caregiver related stress. However, logistical challenges such as a lack of alternate and reliable supervision make it difficult for caregivers to access support related interventions, most of which are time consuming and based outside the home. Expressive writing on the other hand is a simple and time effective intervention that can run in participants’ homes, and as such, might be especially well suited for informal caregivers. Data from study four indicated that writing about the benefits of caring for a child with autism/ADHD can be applied as a home based intervention, and is associated with clinically meaningful improvements in caregivers’ psychological well being.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jun 2014

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