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The Effects of Psychological Stress on Reaction Time
University of Maryland University College, Adelphi MD
Psychological stress impacts, and has the potential to impact, many aspects of
individuals lives, including physiological and emotional states. Research
correlating anxiety, sleep deprivation, and other factors which can be closely
aligned with psychological stress, indicate that perhaps psychological stress can
lead to an increase in individual reaction time. This study recruited 100 adult
participants who do not have any diagnosed mental disorders which could be the
cause of their stress. Half of the participants were assessed and placed in a
significantly psychologically stressed group, and half were considered nonsignificantly stressed. Participants then completed a simple, computer-based
reaction time task. Results of the trials, which are inconclusive but suggest future
research is warranted, are presented here.
100 participants in this study who were placed into two equal groups. Group A
was comprised of significantly psychologically stressed persons; Group B
consisted of non-psychologically stressed persons.
Figure 1.1 Mean of psychologically stressed
and non-psychologically stressed reaction times
No individuals with mental disorder diagnoses were included
Two self-assessments- the PSM-9 measure of psychological stress, and a
Perceived Stress Scale
A blood pressure cuff, sphygmomanometer, and stethoscope to measure blood
A cardiovascular belt to measure heart and respiratory rates
Computers to complete the reaction time tasks
Need for research realized Review Board Form submitted and experiment
Participants volunteered via online system; given appointments
Psychological stress produces a number of emotional and physiological
symptoms, although it affects each person differently and occurs in varying
degrees of severity. Research has shown that significant stress can also cause
increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates. These- and other
symptoms associated with significant psychological stress- can be distracting to
a person, and thus diminish their ability to react as quickly as unstressed
Individuals were given several assessments to determine which group they
belonged to. First, a psychiatrist conducted short diagnostic interviews to rule
out any individuals who may meet the criteria for a DSM-V psychological
Remaining participants were administered self-assessments. One of the selfassessments was the PSM-9, a 49-item measure of psychological stress and their
perceptions of recent stressful events. A perceived stress scale consisting of ten
questions, also related to participant perceptions, was also administered.
While several studies have involved researching the effects of stress on reaction
time, few have made the distinction between psychological and physical stress.
In addition, most studies have studied multiple factors and their effects on
Following self-assessments, physiological data (heart rate, blood pressure, and
respiratory rate) were collected, since significant psychological stress may
impact any or all of these (Costin, Rotariu & Psric, 2013).
Overall, participants were placed into the psychologically stressed group if they:
were not experiencing stress as a byproduct or symptom of a psychological
disorder, indicated on self-report measures that they feel overwhelmed with
stress, and had some sort of abnormal physiological rate.
For example, studies have shown that stress increases processing time for language skills (Rai, Loschky, Harris,
Peck, & Cook, 2011)
Participants completed a computer-based simple reaction time task. Each trial
displayed a visual stimulus, and participants were told to react as quickly as
possible to the stimulus (a different color flashing onto the screen) by pressing
any key. Each trial was repeated 20 times.
psychological stress "resulted in a significant decline in the reaction time" to
a specific color in male participants (Venkates, Ramachandra, Baboo & Rajan,
2002, p. 560).
stress in premenstrual phases results in decreased reaction times (Das,
Gandhi, & Mondal, 1997)
A two-sample unpaired t test was performed to calculate the t and p values for
the data. An alpha level of .05 was employed to determine the significance of
anxiety tends to result in an increased reaction time (Swann, 2011).
Existing research makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the effects of
psychological stress alone. There is reason to believe that psychological stress
may have a significant impact, however.
The hypothesis of this study is that stress increases reaction time.
Figure 1.2 Statistical Results
Costin, H., Rotariu, C., & Psric, A. (2013). Identification of psychological stress by analyzing
electrocardiographic signal. Environmental Engineering & Management Journal , 12(6), 1255-1263.
Das, S., Gandhi, A., & Mondal, S. (1997). Effect of premenstrual stress on audiovisual reaction time and
audiogram. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 41(1).
Rai, M., Loschky, L., Harris, R., Peck, N., & Cook, L. (2011). Effects of stress and working memory capacity on
foreign language readers' inferential processing during comprehension. Language Learning, 187-218.
Swann, J. (2011). Understanding the common triggers and effects of stress. British Journal of Healthcare
Venkatesh, D., Ramachandra, D., Baboo, N., & Rajan, B. (2002). Impact of psychological stress, gender and colour
on visual response latency. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 46(3).
T test calculations were
98 degrees of freedom.
The t value for this data was
The two-tailed p value of
this data was calculated to
be 0.0516. This is not quite
However, it is important to
note that this is close to
future studies may yield
results that indicate a
This study attempted to discover whether or not non-experimentally induced
psychological stress has an impact on reaction time. While there was a
difference, it is not conventionally considered to be quite statistically significant.
Future research could incorporate:
more reaction time tests, larger sample sizes and perhaps more varied
methods of testing them.
More rigorous assessment methods, such as longer diagnostic interviews
More stress and life event-related self assessments
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