Adult attachment representations predict cortisol and oxytocin responses to stress

Attach Hum Dev. 2012;14(5):453-76. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2012.706394.


There are many factors contributing to individual variations in the response to stressful experiences. The present study evaluated the patterns of stress responses according to attachment representations in 28 adults from a community sample, plus 46 subjects expected to be particularly sensitive to stress, having been exposed during childhood and/or adolescence to traumatizing events such as abuse or potentially lethal illnesses. Subjects were given the Adult Attachment Interview, which provides attachment classifications, and the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), involving an experimental psychosocial challenge. Subjective responses to the TSST, as well as saliva samples (assayed for cortisol) and blood plasma samples (assayed for ACTH and oxytocin) were collected before, during and after the stress procedure. The stress responses presented specific patterns according to attachment classifications. Subjects with an autonomous attachment classification reported relatively low subjective stress, they presented a moderate response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (ACTH and cortisol), and a high level of oxytocin. Subjects with a dismissing classification reported a moderate subjective stress, they presented an elevated response of the HPA axis, and moderate levels of oxytocin. Subjects with a preoccupied classification presented moderate levels of subjective stress, and of HPA response, and a relatively low level of oxytocin. Finally, subjects with an unresolved classification reported elevated subjective stress; they presented a suppressed HPA response, and moderate levels of oxytocin. These data support the notion that attachment representations may affect stress responses, and suggest a specific role of oxytocin in both the attachment system and the stress system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Object Attachment*
  • Oxytocin / analysis*
  • Oxytocin / blood
  • Psychological Theory
  • Psychometrics
  • Saliva
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocin
  • Hydrocortisone