Difficulties with emotion regulation moderate the association between childhood history of maltreatment and cortisol reactivity to psychosocial challenge in postpartum women

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Exposure to child maltreatment can lead to long-term emotional difficulties and dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. However, no prior work has examined emotion regulation as a moderator of the association between childhood history of maltreatment and cortisol response to psychosocial challenge. Amongst a sample of 140 postpartum women, associations between childhood maltreatment, emotion regulation, and cortisol response to a computerized Emotional Stroop paradigm were examined using structural equation modeling. Three saliva samples (baseline, 20- and 40-min post-challenge) were collected and later assayed for cortisol. Stepwise regression analyses revealed that difficulties with emotion regulation significantly moderated the association between maternal history of child maltreatment and cortisol reactivity (β = − 0.17, CI.95 = − 0.31, − 0.04, t = − 2.51, p = 0.01). Specifically, women with higher child maltreatment scores and greater difficulties with emotion regulation displayed reduced cortisol reactivity. This finding suggests that diminished emotion regulation capacity may uniquely contribute to blunted physiological reactivity in postpartum women exposed to higher levels of child maltreatment. As the postpartum period has significant implications for maternal well-being and infant development, these findings are discussed in terms of adaptive responsivity, maternal behaviour, and clinical practice.

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