Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity

W. Thomas Boyce, Bruce J Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1085 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Biological reactivity to psychological stressors comprises a complex, integrated, and highly conserved repertoire of central neural and peripheral neuroendocrine responses designed to prepare the organism for challenge or threat. Developmental experience plays a role, along with heritable, polygenic variation, in calibrating the response dynamics of these systems, with early adversity biasing their combined effects toward a profile of heightened or prolonged reactivity. Conventional views of such high reactivity suggest that it is an atavistic and pathogenic legacy of an evolutionary past in which threats to survival were more prevalent and severe. Recent evidence, however, indicates that (a) stress reactivity is not a unitary process, but rather incorporates counterregulatory circuits serving to modify or temper physiological arousal, and (b) the effects of high reactivity phenotypes on psychiatric and biomedical outcomes are bivalent, rather than univalent, in character, exerting both risk-augmenting and risk-protective effects in a context-dependent manner. These observations suggest that heightened stress reactivity may reflect, not simply exaggerated arousal under challenge, but rather an increased biological sensitivity to context, with potential for negative health effects under conditions of adversity and positive effects under conditions of support and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, the developmental plasticity of the stress response systems, along with their structured, context-dependent effects, suggests that these systems may constitute conditional adaptations: evolved psychobiological mechanisms that monitor specific features of childhood environments as a basis for calibrating the development of stress response systems to adaptively match those environments. Taken together, these theoretical perspectives generate a novel hypothesis: that there is a curvilinear, U-shaped relation between early exposures to adversity and the development of stress-reactive profiles, with high reactivity phenotypes disproportionately emerging within both highly stressful and highly protected early social environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)271-301
Number of pages31
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Volume17
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 2005

Fingerprint

Arousal
Phenotype
Social Environment
Psychiatry
Psychology
Health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

Cite this

@article{ffe9dd1ecc8044b295506d20312c0ecc,
title = "Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity",
abstract = "Biological reactivity to psychological stressors comprises a complex, integrated, and highly conserved repertoire of central neural and peripheral neuroendocrine responses designed to prepare the organism for challenge or threat. Developmental experience plays a role, along with heritable, polygenic variation, in calibrating the response dynamics of these systems, with early adversity biasing their combined effects toward a profile of heightened or prolonged reactivity. Conventional views of such high reactivity suggest that it is an atavistic and pathogenic legacy of an evolutionary past in which threats to survival were more prevalent and severe. Recent evidence, however, indicates that (a) stress reactivity is not a unitary process, but rather incorporates counterregulatory circuits serving to modify or temper physiological arousal, and (b) the effects of high reactivity phenotypes on psychiatric and biomedical outcomes are bivalent, rather than univalent, in character, exerting both risk-augmenting and risk-protective effects in a context-dependent manner. These observations suggest that heightened stress reactivity may reflect, not simply exaggerated arousal under challenge, but rather an increased biological sensitivity to context, with potential for negative health effects under conditions of adversity and positive effects under conditions of support and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, the developmental plasticity of the stress response systems, along with their structured, context-dependent effects, suggests that these systems may constitute conditional adaptations: evolved psychobiological mechanisms that monitor specific features of childhood environments as a basis for calibrating the development of stress response systems to adaptively match those environments. Taken together, these theoretical perspectives generate a novel hypothesis: that there is a curvilinear, U-shaped relation between early exposures to adversity and the development of stress-reactive profiles, with high reactivity phenotypes disproportionately emerging within both highly stressful and highly protected early social environments.",
author = "Boyce, {W. Thomas} and Ellis, {Bruce J}",
year = "2005",
month = "3",
doi = "10.1017/S0954579405050145",
language = "English (US)",
volume = "17",
pages = "271--301",
journal = "Development and Psychopathology",
issn = "0954-5794",
publisher = "Cambridge University Press",
number = "2",

}

TY - JOUR

T1 - Biological sensitivity to context

T2 - I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity

AU - Boyce, W. Thomas

AU - Ellis, Bruce J

PY - 2005/3

Y1 - 2005/3

N2 - Biological reactivity to psychological stressors comprises a complex, integrated, and highly conserved repertoire of central neural and peripheral neuroendocrine responses designed to prepare the organism for challenge or threat. Developmental experience plays a role, along with heritable, polygenic variation, in calibrating the response dynamics of these systems, with early adversity biasing their combined effects toward a profile of heightened or prolonged reactivity. Conventional views of such high reactivity suggest that it is an atavistic and pathogenic legacy of an evolutionary past in which threats to survival were more prevalent and severe. Recent evidence, however, indicates that (a) stress reactivity is not a unitary process, but rather incorporates counterregulatory circuits serving to modify or temper physiological arousal, and (b) the effects of high reactivity phenotypes on psychiatric and biomedical outcomes are bivalent, rather than univalent, in character, exerting both risk-augmenting and risk-protective effects in a context-dependent manner. These observations suggest that heightened stress reactivity may reflect, not simply exaggerated arousal under challenge, but rather an increased biological sensitivity to context, with potential for negative health effects under conditions of adversity and positive effects under conditions of support and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, the developmental plasticity of the stress response systems, along with their structured, context-dependent effects, suggests that these systems may constitute conditional adaptations: evolved psychobiological mechanisms that monitor specific features of childhood environments as a basis for calibrating the development of stress response systems to adaptively match those environments. Taken together, these theoretical perspectives generate a novel hypothesis: that there is a curvilinear, U-shaped relation between early exposures to adversity and the development of stress-reactive profiles, with high reactivity phenotypes disproportionately emerging within both highly stressful and highly protected early social environments.

AB - Biological reactivity to psychological stressors comprises a complex, integrated, and highly conserved repertoire of central neural and peripheral neuroendocrine responses designed to prepare the organism for challenge or threat. Developmental experience plays a role, along with heritable, polygenic variation, in calibrating the response dynamics of these systems, with early adversity biasing their combined effects toward a profile of heightened or prolonged reactivity. Conventional views of such high reactivity suggest that it is an atavistic and pathogenic legacy of an evolutionary past in which threats to survival were more prevalent and severe. Recent evidence, however, indicates that (a) stress reactivity is not a unitary process, but rather incorporates counterregulatory circuits serving to modify or temper physiological arousal, and (b) the effects of high reactivity phenotypes on psychiatric and biomedical outcomes are bivalent, rather than univalent, in character, exerting both risk-augmenting and risk-protective effects in a context-dependent manner. These observations suggest that heightened stress reactivity may reflect, not simply exaggerated arousal under challenge, but rather an increased biological sensitivity to context, with potential for negative health effects under conditions of adversity and positive effects under conditions of support and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, the developmental plasticity of the stress response systems, along with their structured, context-dependent effects, suggests that these systems may constitute conditional adaptations: evolved psychobiological mechanisms that monitor specific features of childhood environments as a basis for calibrating the development of stress response systems to adaptively match those environments. Taken together, these theoretical perspectives generate a novel hypothesis: that there is a curvilinear, U-shaped relation between early exposures to adversity and the development of stress-reactive profiles, with high reactivity phenotypes disproportionately emerging within both highly stressful and highly protected early social environments.

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=25844470929&partnerID=8YFLogxK

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/citedby.url?scp=25844470929&partnerID=8YFLogxK

U2 - 10.1017/S0954579405050145

DO - 10.1017/S0954579405050145

M3 - Article

C2 - 16761546

AN - SCOPUS:25844470929

VL - 17

SP - 271

EP - 301

JO - Development and Psychopathology

JF - Development and Psychopathology

SN - 0954-5794

IS - 2

ER -