Future directions in the study of social relationships as regulators of the HPA axis across development

J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2013;42(4):564-75. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2013.804387. Epub 2013 Jun 9.


Many promising findings support the notion that social relationships can dampen hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis stress responses and protect individuals from maladaptive psychological and physical disease states. Despite the public health relevance of this topic, little is known about developmental changes in the social regulation of the HPA system, with most prior research having focused on early childhood and adulthood. This gap is particularly striking with regards to adolescence, an age period when it seems likely that reliance on parents as sources of stress-buffering decreases, even as the security of friends and relationship partners as stress buffers may not yet be certain. Furthermore, we speculate that early life stress or abnormal social experiences may impact the propensity to draw mental and physical health benefits from social relationships, but more empirical support for these ideas is needed. Last, research linking social support to cumulative life stress has mostly relied on self-report measures of stress, making it difficult to show that social support impacts the type of chronic stress exposure that is associated with increased allostatic load or "wear and tear" on the body and on psychological functioning. Recent advancements in methodology (e.g., assessing hair cortisol levels) as well as composite measures of allostatic load using biomarkers that capture the activity of multiple neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic systems will allow us to ask new questions about the extent to which social relationships can impact cumulative life stress and health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Research / trends*
  • Social Support*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology