Although many people are exposed to trauma, only some individuals develop posttraumatic stress disorder; most do not. It is possible that humans differ in the degree to which stress induces neurobiological perturbations of their threat response systems, which may result in a differential capacity to cope with aversive experiences. This study explored the idea that differences in the neurobiological responses of individuals exposed to threat are significantly related to psychological and behavioral indices.
Individual differences in neurohormonal, psychological, and performance indices among 44 healthy subjects enrolled in US Army survival school were investigated. Subjects were examined before, during, and after exposure to uncontrollable stress.
Stress-induced release of cortisol, neuropeptide Y, and norepinephrine were positively correlated; cortisol release during stress accounted for 42% of the variance in neuropeptide Y release during stress. Cortisol also accounted for 22% of the variance in psychological symptoms of dissociation and 31% of the variance in military performance during stress.
Because dissociation, abnormalities in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, and catecholamine functioning have all been implicated in the development of stress disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, these data suggest that some biological differences may exist before index trauma exposure and before the development of stress-related illness. The data also imply a relationship among specific neurobiological factors and psychological dissociation. In addition, the data provide clues about the way in which individuals’ psychobiological responses to threat differ from one another.