Trait-like depression risk factors and cortisol reactivity to lab-induced stress: a meta-analysis examining stressor severity

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Maria Ditcheva (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Suzanne Vrshek-Schallhorn

Abstract: Dysregulated cortisol reactivity has been associated with trait-like depression risk factors; however, findings regarding the direction of the association have been inconsistent, with evidence of both blunted and heightened reactivity. The Cortisol Reactivity Threshold Model aims to reconcile these divergent findings by positing that individuals vary in their cortisol sensitivity to stressors in a systematic fashion, generating peak cortisol reactivity at different levels of stress severity, with at-risk individuals’ reactivity peaking at lower levels of threat, and lower risk individuals’ reactivity peaking at higher levels of threat. This suggests that stressor severity moderates the risk-reactivity relationship in a curvilinear fashion. In this meta-analysis, I examined the relationship between trait-like depression risk factors (extraversion, negative cognitive style, neuroticism, perfectionism, and rumination) and cortisol reactivity to lab-based stressors in 40 independent experimental samples. Specifically, I tested the Cortisol Reactivity Threshold Model using meta-regression to examine a hypothesis that the risk-reactivity relationship varies as a curvilinear function of stressor severity; I also examined a series of moderators. No significant overall effect size emerged between depression risk and cortisol reactivity aggregating across severities (g=0.039; p=0.609). A curvilinear effect of stressor severity was not a significant predictor of the risk-reactivity association across all risk factors aggregated (ß=-0.251, p=0.163) and the effect for trait rumination approached significance (ß=-0.593; p=0.062); however, several potentially model consistent moderator findings emerged. Proportion female (ß=-0.598; p=0.038) and stressor anticipation (ß=-0.069; p=0.003), both predicted a negative risk-reactivity association while habituation was associated with a positive risk-reactivity relationship (g=0.541; p=0.007). My confidence in the null stressor severity curvilinear effect findings is tempered by the few studies included with robust stress levels and by the heterogeneity of severity among studies using moderate stress levels. Future research would benefit from examining the effect of more robust lab-based stressors and from standardization of language reporting stressor severity.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2019
Cortisol, Depression risk factors, Stressor severity, Stress response
Stress (Psychology)
Depression, Mental $x Risk factors

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