Development and Psychopathology

Regular Articles

The symphonic structure of childhood stress reactivity: Patterns of sympathetic, parasympathetic, and adrenocortical responses to psychological challenge

Jodi A. Quasa1 c1, Ilona S. Yima1, Tim F. Oberlandera2, David Nordstokkea2, Marilyn J. Essexa3, Jeffrey M. Armstronga3, Nicole Busha4, Jelena Obradovića5 and W. Thomas Boycea4

a1 University of California–Irvine

a2 University of British Columbia

a3 University of Wisconsin–Madison

a4 University of California–San Francisco

a5 Stanford University


Despite widespread recognition that the physiological systems underlying stress reactivity are well coordinated at a neurobiological level, surprisingly little empirical attention has been given to delineating precisely how the systems actually interact with one another when confronted with stress. We examined cross-system response proclivities in anticipation of and following standardized laboratory challenges in 664 4- to 14-year-olds from four independent studies. In each study, measures of stress reactivity within both the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system (i.e., the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system) and the corticotrophin releasing hormone system (i.e., the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) were collected. Latent profile analyses revealed six distinctive patterns that recurred across the samples: moderate reactivity (average cross-system activation; 52%–80% of children across samples), parasympathetic-specific reactivity (2%–36%), anticipatory arousal (4%–9%), multisystem reactivity (7%–14%), hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis specific reactivity (6%–7%), and underarousal (0%–2%). Groups meaningfully differed in socioeconomic status, family adversity, and age. Results highlight the sample-level reliability of children's neuroendocrine responses to stress and suggest important cross-system regularities that are linked to development and prior experiences and may have implications for subsequent physical and mental morbidity.


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jodi Quas, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-7085; E-mail:


  This work was funded by National Institute of Mental Health Grants R01-MH62320, R01-MH044340, P50-MH069315, P50-MH084051, and R24-MH081797; by National Science Foundation Grant BCS-0721377; and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Psychopathology and Development.