Depression and anxiety predict sex-specific cortisol responses to interpersonal stress

Sally I. Powers, Heidemarie K. Laurent, Meredith Gunlicks-Stoessel, Susan Balaban, Eileen Bent

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Clinical theories posit interpersonal stress as an important factor in the emergence and exacerbation of depression and anxiety, while neuroendocrine research confirms the association of these syndromes with dysregulation in a major stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. However, the proposal that depression and anxiety symptoms and diagnoses are associated with problematic HPA responses to close relationship stress has not been directly tested. We examined 196 heterosexual dating couples' depression and anxiety symptoms and diagnoses, assessed with questionnaires and diagnostic interviews, in relation to cortisol responses to discussion of an unresolved relationship conflict. Participants provided seven salivary samples in anticipation of and directly following the discussion, and throughout an hour-long recovery period, which were assayed for cortisol. Multilevel models of the HPA response predicted by symptoms or diagnoses showed that women's depressive symptoms predicted attenuated cortisol levels, with a flatter response curve. In contrast, men's depression symptoms and women's anxiety symptoms and diagnoses predicted higher cortisol levels. These findings highlight the importance of examining sex differences in responses to interpersonal stressors for understanding HPA dysregulation in internalizing psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)172-179
Number of pages8
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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