Modelling social support in the laboratory: Effects on cardiovascular function.
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Introduction. The present research examines the utility and validity of social support - that aspect of social relationships involving the provision and receipt of emotional or tangible assistance - as a buffer of cardiovascular stress responses relevant to physical health. Five methodological refinements were incorporated to help advance understanding of the effects of social relationships on health. Firstly, the validity of a naturalistic support measure was established in relation to a broad personality framework measure based on Eysenck's Personality Questionnaire. Secondly, analogues of support provision were contrasted against support receipt and social contact in order to identify effects specific to receipt, rather than general embeddedness in a network of mutual obligation. Thirdly, in contrast with studies examining only subjective measures, objective indices of well-being were utilized (namely, resting cardiovascular levels, and cardiovascular reactivity to and recovery from psychological stress). Fourthly, assessment of cardiovascular arousal was operationalized not only at the individual level but as a dyadic construct, in terms of concordance in cardiovascular arousal between dyad members. Finally, cardiovascular function during dyadic interaction was benchmarked against individual stress responses to an acute cognitive stressor. Methods. Five empirical studies are reported. In a sample of 410 college students, Study 1 examined the proportion of variance in a naturalistic support explained by a broad framework of personality based on the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. Using a subsample of 145 healthy women this study also examined whether naturalistic support was a superior predictor of resting cardiovascular levels than trait personality. In Study 2, in order to compare support v provision and receipt effects on cardiovascular stress recovery, 72 women engaged in an acute stressor followed by an intervention designed to elicit thoughts of support provision, support receipt, or social contact. In Study 3, 90 participants (45 dyads) engaged in a supportive or collaborative interaction during which cardiovascular reactivity (CVR) was monitored. In Study 4, concordance in cardiovascular arousal between dyad members was examined in a sample of 52 mother-child dyads characterised by high interpersonal stress and a control sample of 52 dyads. In Study 5, 21 parents engaged in both an acute cognitive stressor and a dyadic interaction with their children. Results. Study 1 indicated that only moderate variance in perceived support was explained by trait personality, and that support and personality independently predicted reduced cardiovascular levels in women. Study 2 suggested distinct effects for mentally-activated support provision and receipt on cardiovascular recovery from acute stress, and found that responses to support provision but not receipt were exacerbated for individuals high in trait hostility. In Study 3, although CVR did not differ between individuals receiving support and individuals completing a stressful task in pairs, greater dynamic concordance in CVR was observed in dyads involved in a supportive transaction compared with those simply collaborating to complete the task. In Study 4, patterns of concordance in resting cardiovascular arousal between dyad members were found to differ between high-stress and low-stress dyadic relationships. Finally, in Study 5, perceptions of one¿s child influenced the degree to which parents found dyadic interaction with their child more or less stressful than an acute stressor. Conclusions. The findings affirm social psychological theories stating that support receipt is not universally and invariably beneficial, but further, indicate that vi support provision can, in some contexts, also be physiologically demanding. Comparison between naturalistic and laboratory analogues of support suggests that many of the benefits ascribed to support may be more accurately a function of social relationship quality than of support specifically. With regard to cardiovascular stress responsivity, it appears that social support and social relationships influence haemodynamic activity at both individual and dyadic levels.
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