An integrative model linking traumatization, cortisol dysregulation and posttraumatic stress disorder: Insight from recent hair cortisol findings

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Abundant evidence suggests links between trauma exposure, altered secretion of the glucocorticoid cortisol and the development/maintenance of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), albeit with some inconsistency in findings. Further insight into the complex relations underlying this process may be derived from an increasing number of studies using hair cortisol analysis, a novel assessment strategy assumed to retrospectively capture long-term integrated cortisol secretion. Here, we evaluate the utility of hair cortisol analysis as a method in trauma/PTSD research and review current findings in this context. We compare hair cortisol data on the complex links between trauma, cortisol dysregulation and PTSD against the main findings obtained using traditional cortisol assessment methods. Finally, we integrate these data into a model which proposes that traumatization leads to dose and time-dependent changes in long-term cortisol output (initial post-traumatic increase, subsequent chronic attenuation) and that such dysregulation may partly mediate the link between traumatic load and the risk of PTSD development upon additional trauma exposure (“building block effect”).

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