Conscientiousness and cardiovascular reactivity to recurrent acute psychological stress
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Introduction. Conscientiousness is a personality construct encompassing the trait of being careful, vigilant, dutiful, and concerned about the implications of one’s actions. It is a core trait within the five-factor personality trait model, and is known for its stability and consistency across the lifespan, as well as its predictability for health behaviour choices that affect morbidity and longevity. Research has presented robust evidence for the influence of socio-behavioural models in moderating conscientiousness and stress appraisal. However, far less scrutiny has been given in addressing whether direct psychosomatic mechanisms might not also play a significant role in moderating this relationship. The central research of this thesis will examine the systematic associations between conscientiousness and acute cardiovascular stress responsivity, and will argue for the consideration of conscientiousness in future psychosomatic models of stress. Methods. Four empirical studies were conducted. In a sample of 602 middle-aged adults drawn from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) cohort, Study 1 examined whether conscientiousness was associated with agentic stress coping strategies using multiple regression. In a sample of 37 female college students, Study 2 investigated whether conscientiousness effected a distinctly adaptive profile of CVR to recurrent acute psychological stress across a protocol of repeated stress exposures. Study 3, in a sample of 89 female college students, scrutinized the conscientiousness and cardiovascular response profiles to acute stress, with the incorporation of performance evaluation in the paradigm. In Study 4, a sample of 84 college students (42 females and 42 males from Study 2) was compared to establish whether these patterns were consistent across sex using a matched-subjects design. Results. Findings from Study 1 supported previous research which suggested that persons higher in conscientiousness were more likely to engage in problem-focused coping behaviours, while persons lower in conscientiousness would tend to utilise emotion-focused coping behaviours. Furthermore, results suggested a propensity for conflation of Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) mindfulness scale items with conscientiousness scale items. In Study 2, significant findings for SBP and MAP indicated that higher-order level interaction effects were present for conscientiousness across time. Study 3 showed significant higher-order effects across the entire protocol for SBP, DBP, and MAP, and HR. CO also demonstrated significance at the cubic level. Study 4 showed that sex exerted the main influence for reactivity effects across time for SBP, DBP, CO, MAP, and TPR in females, while CO and TPR were significant drivers of conscientiousness effects for responsivity in both males and females. Conclusions. These findings indicate that conscientiousness has a critical influence on myocardial dynamics and may be a critical health marker for adaptive response profiles to recurrent acute stress. Conscientiousness was associated with significant cardiovascular response trajectories across repeated acute stressor tasks, sex, and a variety of cardiovascular parameters. High in conscientiousness was associated with problem-focused coping behaviours and lower trait anxiety, while low conscientiousness was associated with emotion-focused coping and higher trait anxiety. Men were more likely to report higher stress across the protocol than women. Overall, findings are consistent with established literature linking conscientiousness with morbidity risk and suggest that conscientiousness is a significant repeated measures variable for predicting haemodynamic reactivity across time. It is possible that rank order groups for conscientiousness may be associated with different stress response profiles and potentially adverse outcomes depending on the situational context. Further investigation is needed in this area. Future research could benefit from assessing between-group differences in conscientiousness and its overall role in reducing the impact of CVR on the development of future disease risk.