The effects of social stress and cortisol responses on the preconscious selective attention to social threat

Section Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Leiden, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands.
Biological Psychology (Impact Factor: 3.47). 05/2007; 75(1):1-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.09.002
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of social stress and stress-induced cortisol on the preconscious selective attention to social threat. Twenty healthy participants were administered a masked emotional Stroop task (comparing color-naming latencies for angry, neutral and happy faces) in conditions of rest and social stress. Stress was induced by means of the Trier social stress test. Based on the stress-induced increase in cortisol levels, participants were allocated post hoc (median-split) to a high and low responders group. In contrast to low responders, high responders showed a negative or avoidant attentional bias to threat (i.e. shorter latencies for angry than neutral faces) in the rest condition. Most importantly, although low responders became avoidant, the high responders became vigilant to the angry faces after stress induction. There were no such effects for happy faces. Our findings are in line with previous studies in both animals and humans, that associate high glucocorticoid stress-responsiveness with diminished avoidance and prolonged freezing reactions during stress.

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    • "This finding is consistent with a view that elevated levels of HPA axis activity facilitate the selection of aggressive responses and/or the enactment of aggressive strategies. Such effects may take place through both emotional pathways, such as the increase of anger, and through cognitive pathways as outlined in social information processing theories (Roelofs et al., 2007). The lack of a link between cortisol reactivity to couple conflict discussion and aggression was surprising, but may be due to the non-independence of baseline and reactivity measures. "
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    • "It is now well-established that attentional biases are present in individuals diagnosed with a range of anxiety disorders (Bar-Haim et al., 2007) as indexed by heightened and sustained vigilance for visual stimuli conveying threat (Mogg and Bradley, 2002). Attentional biases have also been associated with heightened HPA-axis activity (Ellenbogen et al., 2002; Roelofs et al., 2007) providing a basis for cognitive-biological accounts of mood disorders (Beck, 2008). Furthermore, a genetic mechanism for attentional biases has emerged through its association with variations in the serotonin transporter gene (Perez-Edgar et al., 2010). "
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    • "Approach and avoidance reactions were assessed in reaction to positive and threatening social stimuli (i.e., happy and angry faces) using a reaction time affect-evaluation task (the approach–avoidance task, Rotteveel and Phaf, 2004), and threat processing was measured by recording event-related potentials during task performance. The approach– avoidance task provides a reliable tool to investigate overt avoidance behavior (see e.g., Chen and Bargh, 1999; Rotteveel and Phaf, 2004; Solarz, 1960) and has been shown to be sensitive to social anxiety and cortisol manipulations in healthy populations (Heuer et al., 2007; Roelofs et al., 2005; van Peer et al., 2007). Based on earlier findings with high anxious healthy participants (van Peer et al., 2007) we expected relatively increased avoidance (i.e., slower approach or faster avoidance responses) and enhanced processing (i.e., increased early (P150) and later (P300) positive ERP amplitudes) of angry faces after cortisol administration. "
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