Life stress is hypothesized to alter the dynamic regulation of the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immune systems. This study examined the effects of antecedent chronic life stress on psychological and physiological responsivity after acute challenge with a psychological stressor.
Using a within-subject mixed design, male volunteers with (N = 12) and without chronic life stress (N = 11) were administered a 12-minute laboratory stressor (mental arithmetic) vs a video control.
Acute psychological stress induced subjective distress, increases of circulating concentrations of epinephrine, norepinephrine, beta-endorphin, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol, and a selective redistribution of natural killer (NK) cells into the peripheral blood as compared with the video control condition. Although the two groups were almost identical at baseline in psychological, sympathetic, neuroendocrine, and immune domains, the chronic stress group showed greater subjective distress, higher peak levels of epinephrine, lower peak levels of beta-endorphin and of NK cell lysis, and a more pronounced redistribution of NK cells in response to the acute psychological challenge than the controls. Furthermore, the acute stressor induced a protracted decline in NK lysis per NK cell in the chronic stress group but had no effect in the controls.
In summary, when persons who are undergoing chronic life stress are confronted with an acute psychological challenge, an exaggerated psychologic and peak sympathomedullary reactivity occurs that is associated with decrements in individual NK cell function and is protracted beyond termination of the stressor and sympathomedullary recovery.