Cortisol response to an experimental stress paradigm prospectively predicts long-term distress and resilience trajectories in response to active police service

J Psychiatr Res. 2014 Sep;56:36-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.04.020. Epub 2014 May 14.


Heterogeneity in glucocorticoid response to experimental stress conditions has shown to differentiate individuals with healthy from maladaptive real-life stress responses in a number of distinct domains. However, it is not known if this heterogeneity influences the risk for developing stress related disorders or if it is a biological consequence of the stress response itself. Determining if glucocorticoid response to stress induction prospectively predicts psychological vulnerability to significant real life stressors can adjudicate this issue. To test this relationship, salivary cortisol as well as catecholamine responses to a laboratory stressor during academy training were examined as predictors of empirically identified distress trajectories through the subsequent 4 years of active duty among urban police officers routinely exposed to potentially traumatic events and routine life stressors (N = 234). During training, officers were exposed to a video vignette of police officers exposed to real-life trauma. Changes in salivary 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol (MHPG) and cortisol in response to this video challenge were examined as predictors of trajectory membership while controlling for age, gender, and baseline neuroendocrine levels. Officers who followed trajectories of resilience and recovery over 4 years mounted significant increases in cortisol in response to the experimental stressor, while those following a trajectory of chronic increasing distress had no significant cortisol change in response to the challenge. MHPG responses were not associated with distress trajectories. Cortisol response prospectively differentiated trajectories of distress response suggesting that a blunted cortisol response to a laboratory stressor is a risk factor for later vulnerability to distress following significant life stressors.

Keywords: Cortisol; Distress; Neuroendocrine; Police; Prospective; Resilience.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Methoxyhydroxyphenylglycol / metabolism
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Police*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Urban Population
  • Video Recording


  • Methoxyhydroxyphenylglycol
  • Hydrocortisone