Effect of childhood physical abuse on cortisol stress response

Abuse and neglect are highly prevalent in children and have enduring neurobiological effects. Stressful early life environments perturb the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which in turn may predispose to psychiatric disorders in adulthood. However, studies of childhood maltreatment and adult HPA function have not yet rigorously investigated the differential effects of maltreatment subtypes, including physical abuse.

OBJECTIVE: In this study, we sought to replicate our previous finding that childhood maltreatment was associated with attenuated cortisol responses to stress and determine whether the type of maltreatment was a determinant of the stress response.

METHODS: Salivary cortisol response to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) was examined in a non-clinical sample of women (n_=_110). Subjects had no acute medical problems and were not seeking psychiatric treatment. Effects of five maltreatment types, as measured by the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, on cortisol response to the TSST were investigated. To further examine the significant (p_<_0.005) effect of one maltreatment type, women with childhood physical abuse (PA) (n_=_20) were compared to those without past PA (n_=_90).  RESULTS: Women reporting childhood PA displayed a significantly blunted cortisol response to the TSST compared with subjects without PA, after controlling for estrogen use, age, other forms of maltreatment, and other potential confounds. There were no differences between PA and control groups with regard to physiological arousal during the stress challenge.

CONCLUSIONS: In a non-clinical sample of women with minimal or no current psychopathology, physical abuse is associated with a blunted cortisol response to a psychosocial stress task.

Publication Date

March 2011

Publication Name


Violence type

Linda L. Carpenter & Thaddeus T. Shattuck & Audrey R. Tyrka & Thomas D. Geracioti & Lawrence H. Price