Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Peggy S. Keller


Stress is a critical aspect of the human experience and how an individual responds to stress can shape future outcomes, such as physical and mental health, as well as shape the patterns of stress responding that persist throughout one’s lifespan. Coping is a central element of stress responding and can strongly influence the outcome of the stress process. Successful coping can alleviate stress, but ineffective coping may lead to less-than-optimal responding. For example, aspects of the biological stress response, such as activity of target organs for the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, have important implications for future susceptibility to health concerns and disease onset. However, little experimental research exists on how engagement in preferred coping strategies may be associated with more preferred trends of biological stress responding. In addition, there is a dearth of research highlighting the complex interplay between coping and mental health predicting biological stress responding, especially among emerging adulthood. The current study addresses these gaps by evaluating how a coping intervention (four levels: active coping, positive reframing, reading control, and passive control) may impact target organ system activity involved in autonomic nervous system reactivity to stress, and by examining whether mental health may moderate such effects. Participants were 205 college students between 18 and 25 years of age (72.8% female). Participants reported on demographics and completed questionnaires assessing depressive and anxious symptomatology levels. Participants were randomly assigned to a coping condition and completed two tasks, a memory-recall task and a mirror-tracing task, while their skin conductance level (SCL) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) were recorded. To analyze data, multilevel models were fit of time course patterns of SCL and RSA during both tasks (i.e., measures within persons). SCL mainly reflects sympathetic activity on the eccrine sweat glands, whereas RSA mainly reflects parasympathetic activity on the heart. Generally, time courses of SCL decreased towards the middle of the task where they began to flatten out for the remainder of the task. RSA time courses tended to have a decreasing rectilinear trend. The coping intervention was associated with time courses of SCL for both tasks, however, time courses of SCL for those in experimental conditions were not significantly different than time courses of SCL for those in the reading control group. The coping intervention was also associated with time courses of RSA for both tasks. Those in experimental conditions, compared to both control groups, exhibited more preferred patterns of responding akin to vagal withdrawal or a decreasing time course. An aggregated anxiety/depression variable moderated relations between the control conditions, comparing to each other, and SCL time courses during the memory-recall task. Findings demonstrate that the study of coping and physiology is highly nuanced, and research would be well-served adopting a multi-context or multi-organ approach to present a more comprehensive picture of how participants are responding to stress. Overall, results provide evidence that regardless of levels of anxiety or depression, engaging in active coping or positive reframing, after a minimal amount of instruction, may help promote optimal stress responding in emerging adulthood.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

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