Chronic Stress and Adolescents’ Mental Health: Modifying Effects of Basal Cortisol and Parental Psychiatric History. The TRAILS Study
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Large individual differences in adolescent mental health following chronic psychosocial stress suggest moderating factors. We examined two established moderators, basal cortisol and parental psychiatric history, simultaneously. We hypothesized that individuals with high basal cortisol, assumed to indicate high context sensitivity, would show relatively high problem levels following chronic stress, especially in the presence of parental psychiatric history. With Linear Mixed Models, we investigated the hypotheses in 1917 Dutch adolescents (53.2% boys), assessed at ages 11, 13.5, and 16. Low basal cortisol combined with the absence of a parental psychiatric history increased the risk of externalizing but not internalizing problems following chronic stress. Conversely, low basal cortisol combined with a substantial parental psychiatric history increased the risk of internalizing but not externalizing problems following chronic stress. Thus, parental psychiatric history moderated stress- cortisol interactions in predicting psychopathology, but in a different direction than hypothesized. We conclude that the premise that basal cortisol indicates context sensitivity may be too crude. Context sensitivity may not be a general trait but may depend on the nature of the context (e.g., type or duration of stress exposure) and on the outcome of interest (e.g., internalizing vs. externalizing problems). Although consistent across informants, our findings need replication.
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