Early Adversity and Changes in Cortisol and Negative Affect in Response to Interpersonal Threats in the Laboratory

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 May 13;19(10):5934. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19105934.


Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect, are associated with poor health outcomes. This association may be partially explained by differences in stress physiology. Though most early adverse experiences occur within the context of interpersonal relationships, stress exposures manipulated in the laboratory rarely involve interpersonal interactions beyond the mere presence of others. This study examines whether adverse childhood experiences are associated with differences in affective and cortisol reactivity to two stressors which may more closely resemble the powerlessness and the lack of control characteristic of many adverse childhood experiences: a dominant (vs. submissive) interaction partner and lower (vs. higher) social status. We also manipulate social-evaluative threat as a test of whether these interpersonal stressors are more germane to stress reactivity associated with early adversity than the performance anxiety evoked by more traditional laboratory stressors, such as the Trier Social Stress Test. The results partially support the hypothesis that participants with greater early adversity may be more reactive to interpersonal stressors reminiscent of early adverse experience. Given the interpersonal nature of most adverse childhood experiences, conceptualizing and measuring associations with stress physiology in an interpersonal context may more closely capture the psychological and biological embedding of these early experiences.

Keywords: adverse childhood experiences; cortisol reactivity; negative affect reactivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology


  • Hydrocortisone

Grants and funding

Supported by a Dissertation Research Award from the American Psychological Association (APA), a Student Research Award from APA Division 38, and the University of Utah.