Embodying Psychological Thriving: Physical Thriving in Response to Stress


  • Elissa S. Epel,

    Corresponding author
    1. Yale University
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      ELISSA EPEL is currently a clinical intern at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital. She has completed the Ph.D. requirements in clinical psychology at Yale University. Her current research interests focus on psychoneuroendocrine profiles that predict healing or disease processes. The data reported here were part of her dissertation on Cortisol, stress, coping, and body fat distribution, which was funded by the Mac Arthur Foundation Working Group on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Epel was the recipient of the APA Division 38 Student Research Award and the Society of Behavioral Medicine's Outstanding Dissertation Award.

  • Bruce S. McEwen,

    1. Rockefeller University
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      BRUCE MCEWEN, a neuroscientist, is Professor and Head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, where he also received his Ph.D. He has served as Dean of Graduate Studies and is an editorial board member of numerous journals in his field as well as Past-President of the Society for Neuroscience and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has more than 600 publications dealing with the effects of stress and sex hormones on brain functions. He has shown that gene expression can be regulated by the endocrine system, and has elucidated the effects of steroid hormones at molecular, cellular, and organismic levels. His work spans the social/psychological to the molecular level, and continues to have great impact on many fields, as well as important clinical implications.

  • Jeannette R. Ickovics

    1. Yale University
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      JEANNETTE R. ICKOVICS is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health and of Psychology at Yale University. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology from the George Washington University. Her research focuses on women and HIV/AIDS as well as more generally on the interaction of biomedical and psychosocial factors that promote good health and recovery. She received a Scholar Award from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (1993–1996), as well as the 1991 Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology. She was the SPSSI Program Chair for the 1995 APA convention and served on its council from 1995 to 1997.

VA Palo Alto Health Care System 116B, 3801 Miranda Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304; e-mail: elissa.epel@yale.edu


In addition to the context of psychological health, thriving can be measured in the context of physical health. Moreover, thriving may be ope rationalized at a macro level (e.g., improved functional health status following acute illness or injury) or at a micro level (e.g., hormonal balance). The goal of this article is to examine physical thriving at the micro level, by investigating hormonal responses to stressful situations. In addition, we examine the role that psychological factors play in this relationship. Although stress-induced arousal has traditionally been viewed as negative, certain endocrine responses to stress can be health enhancing. Specifically, we propose that physical thriving results when there is a greater amount of growth promoting or anabolic hormones (e.g., growth hormone) than catabolic hormones (e.g., Cortisol). Characteristics of the stressor (duration, frequency, and controllability) as well as psychological moderators such as one's cognitive appraisal of the stressor (threat versus challenge) play a role in determining the profile of response to stress. When an individual appraises intermittent stressors as controllable, she or he may display a resilient profile of stress hormone responding—rapid Cortisol responses with quick recovery, and more importantly, Cortisol adaptation when faced with similar stressors over time. This stress response is in turn related to better health. To substantiate some of these issues, we present data from a study examining women's Cortisol reactivity in response to a repeated laboratory stressor and their self-reported growth from facing trauma. The results suggest that women who have grown psychologically from trauma may show quicker Cortisol habituation to other stressors. Cortisol adaptation to stress may serve as one potential marker of resilient psychological and physical functioning.