Loneliness, HPA stress reactivity and social threat sensitivity: Analyzing naturalistic social challenges

Scand J Psychol. 2018 Oct;59(5):540-546. doi: 10.1111/sjop.12461. Epub 2018 Jul 4.


Loneliness has been linked to poor health through an increased activation of threat surveillance mechanisms, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The socio-cognitive model (Cacioppo & Hawley) proposes that lonely people have an increased social threat sensitivity which activates the HPA axis. The current study examined the impact of loneliness on HPA stress reactivity and social threat sensitivity in response to naturally occurring social challenges. Participants (N = 45) were prospective undergraduates attending a 3-day university preparation programme over the summer, prior to commencing their university studies. Cortisol levels and perceived stress were measured before and after an ice breaker session on Day 1 and a lecture session on Day 3. Social threat sensitivity was also measured on the first and third day. When meeting unfamiliar peers in the ice breaker session, HPA stress reactivity was evident, but it was not markedly different in those who reported high levels of loneliness than those with low levels. The high loneliness group had higher levels of perceived stress and increased social threat sensitivity than the low loneliness group on both testing days. The findings show partial support for the socio-cognitive model of loneliness because increased threat sensitivity was demonstrated in the high loneliness group. The findings indicate that lonely people do not respond in a physiologically different way to specific social challenges, but they typically report higher social threat sensitivity and higher perceived stress than their non-lonely peers.

Keywords: Loneliness; cortisol; friendships; hyperviligance to social threat; ice breaker; social threat; stress; threat sensitivity.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety* / metabolism
  • Anxiety* / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System* / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System* / physiopathology
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Loneliness*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System* / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System* / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / physiopathology
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone