Low socioeconomic status (SES) is one of the most well-established social determinants of health. However, little is known about what can protect the health of individuals (especially children) living in low-SES circumstances. This study explored whether the psychological strategy of “shift-and-persist” protects low-SES children from stress-related physiological risks, as measured through blunted (unhealthy) diurnal cortisol profiles.
A sample of 645 children (aged 8–15 years) from low-SES backgrounds and having at least one HIV-positive parent completed a battery of psychological scales. Diurnal cortisol assessments included collection of saliva samples four times a day for 3 days, from which three cortisol parameters (cortisol at awakening, cortisol awakening response, and cortisol slope) were derived.
Higher levels of shift-and-persist, considered as a single variable, were associated with higher cortisol at awakening (B = 0.0119, SE = 0.0034, p < .001) and a steeper cortisol slope (B = −0.0007, SE = 0.0003, p = .023). These associations remained significant after adjusting for covariates and did not vary by age. In supplementary analyses, where shifting and persisting were treated as separate variables, the interaction between these two coping strategies significantly predicted cortisol at awakening (B = 0.0250, SE = 0.0107, p = .020) and the cortisol slope (B = −0.0022, SE = 0.0011, p = .040), suggesting that the combination of shift-and-persist is important for predicting diurnal cortisol profiles.
Our findings demonstrate that shift-and-persist is associated with healthier diurnal cortisol profiles among socioeconomically disadvantaged children and introduce the possibility that this coping strategy is protective against other stressors, such as those uniquely faced by children in our study (i.e., being affected by parental HIV).