Emotional support during conflict situations elevates blood pressure in African-American boys

November 08, 1999

Among African-American adolescents, boys who received emotional support had higher blood pressure reactivity than boys who received either problem-solving or no support when dealing with conflict situations, according to scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"African American boys may interpret emotional support as negative because boys are traditionally encouraged to be independent," said Dawn K. Wilson, PhD, head of the study. "They may react to being placed in a dependent position such as having to rely on emotional support during a stressful task. They may also show greater cardiovascular reactivity than females under certain stressful social conditions because of an increased desire to exert effort and demonstrate control."

"An increase in blood pressure in response to stress is associated with an increased risk for developing high blood pressure later in life," said Wilson.

"Boys who are provided with solutions or problem-solving support from parents and peers may feel more competent about dealing with life stressors which may lower their risk for developing hypertension and cardiovascular disease in early adulthood."

"Understanding how to reduce the risk of hypertension in these adolescents is important because African-Americans are almost twice as likely to develop high blood pressure as Caucasians in early adulthood-by 40," said Wilson.

In individual laboratory sessions, confederates who played the roles of parent, teacher, sibling or peer antagonized the 24 girls and 24 boys in the study. As the verbal prodding continued, the participants were asked to come up with feasible solutions to the conflicts at hand, such as talking to a teacher about a bad grade, or confronting a peer who spread bad rumors about the participant1s family.

If an adolescent did not respond within 10 or 15 seconds, another confederate would offer a helpful problem-solving suggestion such as, "You could ask the teacher what to do to improve your grade next time," or an emotionally reassuring one such as, "This is really hard but you can do it." Blood pressure readings were taken during the role playing and several times during the recovery period.

Results obtained from female subjects in the study differed from results for African-American boys and from previously published findings of studies conducted with white women. The 13- to 16-year-old African-American girls in the study were expected to be more receptive to encouragement and other forms of emotional support than to problem-solving support, since much research suggests this is what white adult women prefer and seek in conflict situations. However, the adolescent girls showed no significantly greater blood pressure response to either type of support. The researchers report their findings in the current issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact editor Arthur Stone, PhD, 516-632-8833.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health < http://www.cfah.org >. For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, <pchong@cfah.org > (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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