Cortisol and symptoms of psychopathology in Russian and American college students

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Cortisol is a key player in the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress, and has been related to symptoms of depression and other stress-related pathology. The present study investigated the relationship between cortisol and survey measures of stress and psychopathology as well as lifestyle in Russian and American college students. Salivary cortisol was collected upon awakening, 30 min later, at 4 p.m., and at 10 p.m. by Russian and American college students. Survey measures of anxiety and depression, as measured by the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL-25) were collected as well as scores on the Trauma History Questionnaire (THQ). In addition, measures of drinking-related problems, as measured by the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) and the “Cut down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye-opener” (CAGE) were also completed. Consistent with the typically observed empirical pattern, cortisol levels increased in the 30 min after awakening and then declined across the day. Women reported more symptoms of anxiety than did men in both Russian and American samples. American students reported more symptoms of depression than did Russian students, though Russian students reported more traumatic life experiences. Americans had higher cortisol levels overall, though Russian students had larger changes in cortisol levels across the day, associated with both greater morning rises and afternoon declines in cortisol. While more Russian students reported smoking, American students reported more problems associated with alcohol use as measured by the AUDIT. The relationship between stress and health, mediating factors of lifestyle and coping, and the impact of social transition in Russia are discussed.