Role of shame and body esteem in cortisol stress responses

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© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media New York. Studies assessing the role of shame in HPA axis reactivity report mixed findings. Discrepancies may be due to methodological difficulties and inter-individual differences in the propensity to experience shame in a stressful situation. Hence, the current study combined self-report of shame and facial coding of shame expressions and assessed the role of body esteem as a moderator of the shame–stress link. For this, 44 healthy students (24F, age 20.5 ± 2.1 years) were exposed to an acute psychosocial stress paradigm (Trier Social Stress Test: TSST). Salivary cortisol levels were measured throughout the protocol. Trait shame was measured before the stress test, and state shame immediately afterwards. Video recordings of the TSST were coded to determine emotion expressions. State shame was neither associated with cortisol stress responses nor with body esteem (self-report: all ps ≥ .24; expression: all ps ≥ .31). In contrast, higher trait shame was associated with both negative body esteem (p = .049) and stronger cortisol stress responses (p = .013). Lastly, having lower body esteem predicted stronger cortisol stress responses (p = .022); however, it did not significantly moderate the association between shame indices and cortisol stress responses (all ps ≥ .94). These findings suggest that body esteem and trait shame independently contribute to strength of cortisol stress responses. Thus, in addition to trait shame, body esteem emerged as an important predictor of cortisol stress responses and as such, a potential contributor to stress-related negative health outcomes.

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