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Stress. 2010 May;13(3):214-20. doi: 10.3109/10253890903277561.

Effects of manipulating the amount of social-evaluative threat on the cortisol stress response in young healthy women.

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The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), University of Toronto, 555 University Avenue, M5G1X8, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Psychological stress is known to activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, resulting in the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex into the bloodstream. Cortisol is the major human stress hormone and its health correlates continue to be investigated by laboratories around the world. One line of research suggests that specific situational variables play a role in the creation of a stressful situation. The current study examined the effects of systematically varying several situational characteristics on the cortisol stress response in 80 healthy young women exposed to a public speaking task. Three main factors and its interactions were investigated by locating the expert panel either inside or outside of the room, having the subjects speak either about themselves or somebody else, and by asking half of the subjects to perform a distractor task in addition to performing the public speaking. We interpreted these manipulations as variations of social evaluative threat, ego-involvement, and divided attention. We hypothesized that the variations and their interactions would cause differences in endocrine stress responses. The results showed that only the manipulation of social-evaluative threat had a significant main effect on the cortisol stress response in women. There was a further trend (p = 0.07) for a four-way interaction effect. No other main or interaction effects could be observed. We conclude that in women, social-evaluative threat affects the endocrine stress response. This is in contrast to a previous study showing no effects of this variation in men. Thus, future studies should more closely investigate sex or gender effects that might be interacting with the situational aspects of a stressful task.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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