Objective: Everyday stressors can threaten valued aspects of the self. Self-affirmation theory posits that this threat could be attenuated if individuals affirm alternative self-resources. The present study examined whether self-affirmation would buffer cumulative stress responses to an ongoing academic stressor.
Design: Undergraduate participants provided 15-hr urine samples on the morning of their most stressful examination and baseline samples 14 days prior to the examination. Participants were randomly assigned to the self-affirmation condition where they wrote two essays on important values over the 2-week period prior to exam, or a control condition.
Main outcome measures: Samples were analyzed for urinary catecholamine excretion (epinephrine, norepinephrine), an indicator of sympathetic nervous system activation. Participants also indicated their appraisals of the examination experience.
Results: Participants in the control condition increased in cumulative epinephrine levels from baseline to examination, whereas participants in the self-affirmation condition did not differ from baseline to examination. The buffering effect of self-affirmation was strongest among individuals most concerned about negative college evaluation, those most psychologically vulnerable.
Conclusion: The findings demonstrate that sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors can be attenuated by self-affirmation. Discussion centers on psychological pathways by which affirmation can reduce stress and the implications of the findings for health outcomes among chronically stressed participants.
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