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Intimacy as related to cortisol reactivity and recovery in couples undergoing psychosocial stress

Ditzen, Beate, PhDa; Germann, Janine, PhDb; Meuwly, Nathalie, PhDc; Bradbury, Thomas N., PhDd; Bodenmann, Guy, PhDe; Heinrichs, Markus, PhDb,f

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000633
Original Article: PDF Only

Objective The importance of recovery from stress is evident in times of high prevalence of stress-related diseases. Intimacy has been found to buffer psychobiological stress-reactivity, suggesting that emotional and physical closeness might trigger biological mechanisms which underlie the health-beneficial effects of couple relationships. Here we investigated whether couples’ spontaneous expression of intimacy before and after psychosocial stress exposure in the laboratory reduced cortisol reactivity and accelerated recovery.

Methods Data from 183 couples (366 individuals) were analyzed. Couples were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: only the female partner (n = 62), only the male partner (n = 61), or both partners were stressed in parallel (n = 60) with the Trier Social Stress Test. Couples’ behavior was videotaped and coded for expressions of intimacy, and saliva samples were taken repeatedly (nine times) in order to analyze cortisol levels before and after stress. Data were analyzed using hierarchical linear modeling.

Results Observed partner intimacy reduced cortisol responses to stress in women (B = -0.016, S.E. = 0.006, p = .008), though this effect was eliminated among women using oral contraceptives. Observed partner intimacy also reliably accelerated cortisol recovery in men (B = -0.002, S.E. = 0.001, p = .023) and women (B = -0.002, S.E. = 0.001, p = .016).

Conclusion Spontaneous nonverbal expressions of intimacy appear to regulate the effects of acute environmental demands on established biological indices of stress response.

aInstitute of Medical Psychology, Center for Psychosocial Medicine, Heidelberg University, Bergheimer Str. 20, D-69115 Heidelberg

bDepartment of Psychology, Laboratory for Biological and Personality Psychology, University of Freiburg, Stefan-Meier-Strasse 8, D-79104 Freiburg, Germany

cDepartment of Psychology, Clinical Family Psychology, University of Fribourg, Rue P.A. de Faucigny 2, CH-1700 Fribourg, Switzerland

dDepartment of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Box 951563, Los Angeles, California, 90095-1563, USA

eDepartment of Psychology, Clinical Psychology for Children/Adolescents and Couples/Families, University of Zurich, Binzmuhlestrasse 14, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland

fFreiburg Brain Imaging Center, University Medical Center, University of Freiburg, Breisacher Strasse 64, D-79106 Freiburg, Germany

These authors contributed equally to this work. Beate Ditzen, PhD, Janine Germann, PhD

Corresponding authors at: Beate Ditzen, PhD, BD: Institute of Medical Psychology, Heidelberg University, Bergheimer Str. 20, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany, E-mail address: Markus Heinrichs, PhD, MH: Department of Psychology, Laboratory for Biological and Personality Psychology, University of Freiburg, Stefan-Meier-Strasse 8, 79104 Freiburg, Germany, E-mail address:

This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) Nr. 100013-115948/1 (Bodenmann, Heinrichs, Bradbury).

Copyright © 2018 by American Psychosomatic Society
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