Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms, Intrusive Thoughts, and Disruption Are Longitudinally Related to Elevated Cortisol and Catecholamines Following a Major Hurricane


  • This work was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grants MH40106, and T32MH18917, a University of Miami Research Council Grant, and the Health Foundation of South Florida. This article is dedicated to the memory of Christina Wynings, whose tireless efforts at making this study run smoothly are much appreciated.


This is the first study of a natural disaster (Hurricane Andrew) in which psychological and neuroendocrine data were collected 1–4 and 9–12 months afterward. Data were assessed using a community sample (N = 111) of hurricane survivors. Elevated posttraumatic stress symptoms (intrusive and avoidant thoughts) and stress hormones that initially were twice normal control values decreased significantly over time and returned to levels of non-hurricane controls by the end of the year. In contrast to previous reports, suggesting low cortisol in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), our sample had elevated cortisol, perhaps due to the nature of the trauma (i.e., natural disaster vs. crime, rape or war), our timing, or getting samples a few months after the event. In addition, the decrease in stress hormones over the year (cortisol and epinephrine [E]) was related to a decrease in psychological symptoms of trauma. Cortisol and norepinephrine (NE) were both related to the hurricane experience as well (damage and rebuilding; damage and disruption). Gender differences showed women reported more distress, but men had higher NE and cortisol. Finally, cortisol correlated most consistently both cross sectionally and longitudinally with reported days ill.