Background. Risk behavior contributes to injuries, one of the most important sources of morbidity and mortality in adolescents. Although research has shown that environmental stress makes adolescents more likely to engage in risk behavior and to sustain injuries, the magnitude of these associations has been small. Little is known about the role of individual differences in psychobiologic reactivity to stress in moderating the impact of stressful events. In this study, we examined associations among environmental stressors, cardiovascular reactivity to stress, and the level of risk behavior in adolescent boys.

Methods. Twenty-four 14- to 16-year-old boys underwent a laboratory protocol designed to measure responses to psychologically and physically stressful tasks. Changes in heart rate and mean arterial blood pressure were measured serially at standard points in the protocol, and levels of positive and negative life events and recent risk behavior were measured using self-report questionnaires.

Results. Neither life events nor cardiovascular reactivity were independently associated with risk behavior. Positive life events and mean arterial blood pressure reactivity significantly interacted, however, in predicting risk behavior (R2 increment = .25). Boys with high reactivity who reported numerous positive life events engaged in markedly less risk behavior than their peers.

Conclusion. We conclude that adolescents with exaggerated cardiovascular responses to laboratory stressors are associated with less risk behavior in a setting of positive life circumstances. This result suggests that reactivity may exert protective, rather than harmful, influences in some environments.

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