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Dynamics and determinants of cortisol and alpha-amylase responses to repeated stressors in recent interpersonal trauma survivors

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Alterations in major stress response systems are present during the immediate aftermath of trauma and may play a role in determining risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the dynamics and determinants of stress responses during this acute recovery phase, and their relevance for longitudinal clinical course and prognosis, have yet to be fully examined. The objectives of the present study were to characterize stress response and habituation patterns to repeated social stressors in women who recently experienced interpersonal trauma and to determine the extent to which these stress responses were associated with PTSD during prospective follow-up.


This longitudinal study examined salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase and heart rate (HR) responses to repeated stressors in 98 young women (ages 18-30). Participants included women who had experienced an incident of interpersonal trauma (i.e., physical and/or sexual assault) in the three months prior to their baseline assessment (n = 58) and a comparison group of healthy, non-traumatized women (n = 40). Women completed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), clinical interviews to evaluate posttraumatic stress symptom severity at the baseline assessment and again at 1-, 3-, and 6-month follow-ups.


Multilevel models revealed a pattern of robust initial cortisol TSST responses and habituation across successive TSSTs; alpha-amylase and HR responses showed no evidence of habituation across TSSTs. Among interpersonal trauma survivors, current PTSD status was associated with more pronounced cortisol responses to the first TSST. Survivors exhibited similarly blunted cortisol responses across follow-up TSSTs regardless of PTSD status, suggesting habituation of cortisol responses among survivors who developed PTSD. PTSD re-experiencing symptoms were uniquely associated with blunting of cortisol TSST responses.


Findings suggest that PTSD as a diagnostic entity is meaningfully associated with cortisol responses to repeated social stressors. Social-evaluative threat is a salient form of danger for interpersonal trauma survivors. Identifying the determinants of cortisol (non)habituation to repeated social-evaluative threat among interpersonal trauma survivors could inform the development of early interventions for PTSD.

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