Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 33–44 | Cite as

Stress and Cortisol in Disaster Evacuees: An Exploratory Study on Associations with Social Protective Factors

  • David Javier Thompson
  • Inka Weissbecker
  • Elizabeth Cash
  • David M. Simpson
  • Meagan Daup
  • Sandra E. Sephton


Though cumulative emotional and physical effects of disasters may diminish evacuees’ short and long-term mental and physical health, social factors may buffer such consequences. We approached survivors of the October 2007 San Diego, California firestorms. We gathered data during the evacuation and 3 months afterward. Questionnaires measured social support as well as PTSD, depression, and anxiety symptoms. Saliva samples were used to assess the stress hormone, cortisol. Analyses, adjusting for age, gender, and socioeconomic status, showed PTSD symptoms were associated with flattening of the diurnal cortisol rhythm during evacuation. Secondary analyses showed those reporting a family emphasis on moral and religious values had lower psychological distress. Though anxiety symptoms had significantly decreased in the overall sample at follow-up, blunted cortisol rhythms persisted among those individuals with continued high anxiety. Results highlight a possible psychological, and perhaps a physiological, benefit of social and existential factors in disaster situations. Future work should explore the role of psychosocial factors and stress physiology in the development of long-term health concerns among individuals exposed to disaster.


Diurnal cortisol rhythm Disaster evacuees PTSD Anxiety Social protective factor 



This study was funded by a National Science Foundation Quick Response Research Grant to Inka Weissbecker (PI) and Sandra E. Sephton (CoI).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Javier Thompson
    • 1
  • Inka Weissbecker
    • 2
  • Elizabeth Cash
    • 3
  • David M. Simpson
    • 4
    • 5
  • Meagan Daup
    • 6
  • Sandra E. Sephton
    • 4
    • 6
  1. 1.School for Social Service AdministrationUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.International Medical CorpsWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of SurgeryUniversity of Louisville School of MedicineLouisvilleUSA
  4. 4.Center for Hazards Research and Policy DevelopmentUniversity of LouisvilleLouisvilleUSA
  5. 5.Department of Urban and Public AffairsUniversity of LouisvilleLouisvilleUSA
  6. 6.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesUniversity of LouisvilleLouisvilleUSA

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