Stressor paradigms in developmental studies: What does and does not work to produce mean increases in salivary cortisol

Megan R. Gunnar, Nicole M. Talge, Adriana Herrera

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435 Scopus citations


The stress response system is comprised of an intricate interconnected network that includes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. The HPA axis maintains the organism's capacity to respond to acute and prolonged stressors and is a focus of research on the sequelae of stress. Human studies of the HPA system have been facilitated enormously by the development of salivary assays which measure cortisol, the steroid end-product of the HPA axis. The use of salivary cortisol is prevalent in child development stress research. However, in order to measure children's acute cortisol reactivity to circumscribed stressors, researchers must put children in stressful situations which produce elevated levels of cortisol. Unfortunately, many studies on the cortisol stress response in children use paradigms that fail to produce mean elevations in cortisol. This paper reviews stressor paradigms used with infants, children, and adolescents to guide researchers in selecting effective stressor tasks. A number of different types of stressor paradigms were examined, including: public speaking, negative emotion, relationship disruption/threatening, novelty, handling, and mild pain paradigms. With development, marked changes are evident in the effectiveness of the same stressor paradigm to provoke elevations in cortisol. Several factors appear to be critical in determining whether a stressor paradigm is successful, including the availability of coping resources and the extent to which, in older children, the task threatens the social self. A consideration of these issues is needed to promote the implementation of more effective stressor paradigms in human developmental psychoendocrine research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)953-967
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Aug 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by grants from the United States National Institutes of Health, specifically a National Institute of Mental Health research grant MH08095 to Megan R. Gunnar, a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Postdoctoral Fellowship HD046377 to Nicole Talge, and a National Institute of Mental Health Predoctoral Fellowship MH015755 to Adriana Herrera.


  • Human development
  • Salivary cortisol
  • Stressor paradigms


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