Stress can precipitate the onset of mood and anxiety disorders. This may occur, at least in part, via a modulatory effect of stress on decision-making. Some individuals are, however, more resilient to the effects of stress than others. The mechanisms underlying such vulnerability differences are nevertheless unknown. In this study we attempted to begin quantifying individual differences in vulnerability by exploring the effect of experimentally induced stress on decision-making. The threat of unpredictable shock was used to induce stress in healthy volunteers (N = 47) using a within-subjects, within-session design, and its impact on a financial decision-making task (the Iowa Gambling Task) was assessed alongside anxious and depressive symptomatology. As expected, participants learned to select advantageous decks and avoid disadvantageous decks. Importantly, we found that stress provoked a pattern of harm-avoidant behaviour (decreased selection of disadvantageous decks) in individuals with low levels of trait anxiety. By contrast, individuals with high trait anxiety demonstrated the opposite pattern: stress-induced risk-seeking (increased selection of disadvantageous decks). These contrasting influences of stress depending on mood and anxiety symptoms might provide insight into vulnerability to common mental illness. In particular, we speculate that those who adopt a more harm-avoidant strategy may be better able to regulate their exposure to further environmental stress, reducing their susceptibility to mood and anxiety disorders.
Keywords: Anxiety; Depression; Harm-avoidance; Iowa Gambling Task; Resilience; Risk-seeking; Stress; Threat of shock; Vulnerablity.