'Stress Hormone' May Be Stress Reducer
News from the Frontier

by Elizabeth Norton Lasley

March, 2007

The hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, plays many roles in the fight-or-flight response. Research shows that when given as an injection either before or immediately after a stressful event, cortisol treatment can reduce the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder.  

According to a new study, pretreatment with cortisol can help reduce the anxiety of speaking before a group. In a study published in the February issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, 44 healthy young women took either cortisol or a placebo orally, then underwent “psychosocial stressors.” One challenge was to give a five-minute presentation as if interviewing for a job; the other involved counting backwards by 17. 

Before and at several points after the ordeal, the women noted their emotional states in questionnaires that were translated into numerical scores. The cortisol-treated group reported significantly better mood, with scores several points higher than those seen in the group that took the placebo. The difference was most pronounced one minute after the stressor ended.

“Our results suggest that cortisol given before a stressful situation might help blunt the event’s effect on mood,” says lead author Oliver Wolf of the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Prior research shows that cortisol can interfere with memory formation; Wolf speculates that cortisol treatment might prevent the study participants from brooding about their mistakes, thus making the experience a more positive one.