Cumulative trauma predicts hair cortisol concentrations and symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnant women—an investigation of community samples from Greece, Spain and Perú

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


  • Johanna Dobernecker - , Berlin Psychological University gGmbH (Author)
  • Andria Spyridou - , University of Konstanz, Vivo International e.V. (Author)
  • Thomas Elbert - , University of Konstanz, Vivo International e.V. (Author)
  • Maggie Schauer - , University of Konstanz, Vivo International e.V. (Author)
  • Susan Garthus-Niegel - , Institute and Policlinic of Occupational and Social Medicine, University Medicine (Faculty of Medicine and University Hospital), MSH Medical School Hamburg, Norwegian Institute of Public Health (Author)
  • Martina Ruf-Leuschner - , University of Konstanz, Vivo International e.V. (Author)
  • Inga Schalinski - , Berlin Psychological University gGmbH, University of Konstanz, Vivo International e.V., Bundeswehr University of Munich (Author)


Exposure to traumatic experiences across lifespan shapes the functioning of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and sets individuals at risk to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety. Particularly, HPA axis regulation and the psychological health of the expectant mother have been of interest, as the health of the unborn child may be affected through changes in gestational biology. The present study investigated the potential associations between lifetime trauma, current symptoms (depression and anxiety) and hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) in pregnant women. A total of 149 pregnant women were interviewed in public outpatient clinics with varying gestational age in Greece, Spain and Perú. Lifetime trauma exposure and current symptoms of depression and anxiety were assessed. HCC was measured in scalp-near hair segments (2 cm length) reflecting cumulative cortisol secretion of the past two months. Results showed that trauma load is negatively associated with HCC and higher symptoms of depression and anxiety. There was a negative association between HCC and symptoms. The present findings support the notion that cumulative trauma exposure exerts long-lasting effects on the expectant mother’s HPA axis activity functioning and mental health and may thereby potentially create risk trajectories for the unborn child via changes in gestational biology.


Original languageEnglish
Article number1434
Number of pages9
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jan 2023

External IDs

PubMed 36697477
WOS 000987346600053
ORCID /0000-0002-7472-674X/work/142257739


Sustainable Development Goals

ASJC Scopus subject areas


  • Humans, Female, Pregnancy, Pregnant Women, Hydrocortisone, Depression/psychology, Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System, Greece/epidemiology, Peru, Spain/epidemiology, Pituitary-Adrenal System, Anxiety, Hair, Stress, Psychological/psychology, Mental-health, Risk, Exposure, Traumatization, Hpa axis, Association, Posttraumatic-stress-disorder, Individuals, Adverse childhood experiences