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Sustained Attention and Individual Differences in Adolescents’ Mood and Physiological Reactivity to Stress

Abstract

Biased attention to sad faces is associated with depression in adults and is hypothesized to increase depression risk specifically in the presence, but not absence, of stress by modulating stress reactivity. However, few studies have tested this hypothesis, and no studies have examined the relation between attentional biases and stress reactivity during adolescence, despite evidence that this developmental window is marked by changes in depression risk, stress, and the function of attention. Seeking to address these limitations, the current study examined the impact of adolescents’ sustained attention to facial displays of emotion on individual differences in both mood reactivity to real-world stress and physiological (i.e., respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]) reactivity to a laboratory-based stressor. Consistent with vulnerability-stress models of attention, greater sustained attention to sad faces was associated with greater depressive reactions to real-world stress. In addition, there was preliminary evidence from exploratory analyses that the impact of sustained attention on mood and/or physiological reactivity may be moderated by adolescents’ age and sex such that relations are stronger for older adolescents and girls. The results of this study contribute to the current body of research on the role of attention in stress reactivity and depression risk and highlight the importance of considering age differences when examining these relations.

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Notes

  1. Poor split-half reliability was observed for time to disengage from angry, happy, and sad faces (.46, .62, and .44, respectively) and time to engage with angry, happy, and sad faces (.75, .42, .50). Therefore, the current study only focused on average gaze duration across the 3000 ms of passive face viewing prior to each trial as a measure of sustained attention to emotional faces.

  2. RSA was only examined during the anticipation phase of the TSST for two reasons. First, speaking aloud leads to changes in respiration that impact RSA (Beda et al., 2007). Therefore RSA during the speech and math phases of the TSST could be adulterated by changes in respiration. Second, the anticipation phase of the TSST is the only phase of the TSST that can be truly standardized, as feedback that youth receive during the speech and math phases is, in part, due to their performance.

  3. Four participants did not exhibit an average increase in negative affect across the TSST. However, all results were maintained when excluding these participants.

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Acknowledgments

This project was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE1144464 awarded to C. Feurer. We would like to thank Serah Narine, Jemy Paulson, Margarita Ashkinazi, Lillian Harrington, Louis Cafaro, Stephanie Mcgory, and Kevin Kunz for their help in conducting assessments for this project.

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Correspondence to Cope Feurer.

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Feurer, C., James, K.M., Foster, C.E. et al. Sustained Attention and Individual Differences in Adolescents’ Mood and Physiological Reactivity to Stress. J Abnorm Child Psychol 48, 1325–1336 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-020-00679-8

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Keywords

  • Attentional biases
  • Stress reactivity
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Depression risk
  • Adolescents