Objective: The purpose of the study was to search for the intrapsychic correlates of individual differences in cortisol levels in male Vietnam combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder.
Methods: The study involved measurement of urinary cortisol levels and clinical assessment with a broad profile of psychometric tests during a single 48-hour period in 30 inpatients.
Results: The main finding by both correlation and t test analyses was a significant inverse relationship between urinary cortisol levels and a symptom complex composed of two closely interrelated clinical subgroupings, "disengagement" (principally involving emotional numbing) and "shame-laden depression."
Conclusions: The findings support the concept that cortisol levels reflect the ongoing balance between the undifferentiated emotional arousal state of engagement (associated with higher cortisol levels) and opposing antiarousal disengagement defense mechanisms (associated with lower cortisol levels). It appears that the low cortisol levels often seen in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder are psychogenic and reflect a dominating effect of disengagement coping strategies, which represent secondary compensatory adaptations during the chronic course of this disorder to counteract primary arousal symptoms, especially those related to an intractable shame-laden depressive syndrome. The psychoendocrine findings suggest that the relatively inconspicuous clinical feature of shame resulting from both the primary and secondary traumatizations is a particularly powerful, preoccupying, and overwhelming source of emotional engagement. Shame may represent a "sleeper" that is worthy of greater attention in both research and clinical efforts to understand the pathogenesis and psychopathology of this devastating stress-related disorder.