Hayden receives SSHRC funding to investigate impact of youth stress

July 22, 2019Story by Rob Rombouts

Elizabeth Hayden, professor, Department of PsychologyStressful life events are a robust predictor of negative mental health outcomes, particularly depression. Elizabeth Hayden, professor in the Department of Psychology, wants to know why some youth develop greater vulnerability to stressors than others.

Hayden, along with co-applicants Elizabeth Hampson, professor in the Department of Psychology, and Kate Harkness, of Queen’s University, have received a $317,595, 5-year SSHRC grant to fund a study “A developmental approach to understanding sex and gender differences in the evolution of stress exposure and stress sensitivity.”

“Humans can experience remarkably stressful events, but most of us are ok. We don’t develop mental health problems,” said Hayden. “How can we figure out who is going to be the most vulnerable or sensitive to negative life events?”

Tracing youth development from childhood to adolescence will lead to new knowledge concerning how stress sensitivity develops. Hayden said that there are many factors that impact how people respond to life events, including biological processes, children’s emotional characteristics, and how kids think about or interpret stressors.

Not only do many factors contribute to vulnerability to stress, the extent to which one is vulnerable changes over time based on one’s environment. “We know that early stress exposure has its own impact on children’s sensitivity to stress over time,” said Hayden. “It’s not the case that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In fact, experiencing early stressors tend to make us even more vulnerable to future stress, later down the line.”

In previous research, Hayden assessed responses to stress and stress exposure in over 400 families of pre-schoolers.

In that study, Hayden collected multiple waves of data on children’s emotional characteristics and hormonal responses to stress, as well as exhaustively characterizing children’s early environments.

The new SSHRC funded project will follow these children across adolescence. In doing so, Hayden will be able to see how children’s early stress responses and environments predict adolescent stress responses and stress exposures.

“Although life stress sometimes comes at us ‘out of the blue,’ it unfortunately isn’t unusual for us to play some role in eliciting stressful situations. Our own actions may lead us into stressful situations,” said Hayden. “Are there any early childhood tendencies of kids that predict whether, as adolescents, they will tend to find themselves in stressful situations more frequently than their peers?”

As a key part of the project, Hayden will examine gender differences in stress responses.

“Girls, starting in adolescence, become depressed at a much higher rate than boys,” said Hayden. “Depression starts to happen most often for adolescents or young adults, which may be related to developmental changes in stress reactivity that emerge around this same time.”

Hayden said women and girls are more vulnerable to interpersonal types of stress, but the reasons for this are unclear.

“There are socialization processes that may make girls value solid social connections more so than boys,” said Hayden. “However, there are biological differences that make girls more vulnerable as well. Probably both play a role, but our study will hopefully allow us to be more precise in terms of the key factors that contribute to girls’ greater risk.”

Hayden hopes that the research can contribute to identifying clues toward understanding who is most impacted by stress, and why.

“Ultimately, it would be nice if we could develop preventative measures,” said Hayden. “For example, if we could show that girls are more vulnerable to interpersonal stress primarily due to the beliefs they hold about social ties, we could focus on changing those attitudes.”

Hayden said that project is as much about adaptive development as maladaptive development.

“This project won’t simply be about looking at negative health outcomes,” said Hayden. “Our data will also give us the opportunity to understand how and why some kids turn out just fine, even if they life stress in their early environments.”