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Heightened stress responsivity and emotional reactivity during pubertal maturation: Implications for psychopathology

  • Linda Patia Spear (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

This commentary reviews and reflects on the studies of this special section: studies that collectively provide compelling evidence for meaningful changes in stress- and emotionally reactive psychophysiological systems with the transition from middle childhood into adolescence. The observed changes were complex and often overlaid upon ontogenetic differences in basal levels of activation of these systems. Maturational increases in responsiveness to stressors were stressor dependent and differentially expressed across autonomic and hormonal measures. Pubertal status increased the impact of some affective valence manipulations, although not significantly influencing others, including negative affect-related potentiation of startle/reflexes. Such ontogenetic increases in stressor and affect sensitivity may have implications for developmental psychopathology. Developmental increases in stressor reactivity may normally aid youth in responding adaptively to the challenges of adolescence, but may result in stress dysregulation among at-risk adolescents, increasing further their vulnerability for psychopathology. Pubertal-related increases in sensitivity to emotionally laden stimuli may exacerbate individual predispositions for exaggerated affective processing, perhaps contributing to the emergence of psychological disorders in these youth. Together, these studies, with their innovative use of autonomic, reflexive, and hormonal measures to index age- and pubertal-related changes in reactivity to stressors and affective stimuli, provide promising directions for future research. Some of these, along with a few cautionary notes, are outlined.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Linda Patia Spear, Department of Psychology and Center for Development and Behavioral Neuroscience, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000; E-mail:
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