Cognitive appraisal partially explains differences in cortisol increase after psychosocial stress between women and men

Franziska Lautenbach, Jana Strahler, Annika Mombartz, Stefanie Elsner, Silvia Achtzehn, Laura Isabell Thomas, Uirassu Borges

Publication: Contribution to journalConference abstract in journalResearchpeer-review


Background: It has been shown that cortisol increase is 1.5 to 2 times higher in males as opposed to females after the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST; Kudielka and Kirschbaum, 2005), whereas females report to have higher levels of stress after a psychosocial stressor (i.e., TSST; Avero and Calvo, 1999). As previous literature shows that the cognitive appraisal predicts the cortisol increase after a psychosocial stressor in men (Schlotz et al., 2011; Gaab et al., 2003, 2005), this study examines cognitive appraisal of a stressful situation as a mediator of sex-differences in cortisol stress responses.

Methods: Forty-one participants (24 females: Mage = 43.1, range 21–58; 17 males: Mage = 37.5, range 20–60) performed the TSST for Groups (von Dawans et al., 2011). Seven saliva samples were collected (i.e., t − 20 t − 5, t + 10, t + 25, t + 30, t + 45, t + 60) for the assessment of cortisol. After the introduction and preparatory phase of the TSST, participants filled out the Primary Appraisal Secondary Appraisal Scale (PASA, Gaab et al., 2003) to examine cognitive appraisal.

Results: Cortisol increase is significantly higher in male participants compared to females, p = .026, d = 0.75. In contrast, males evaluated the upcoming stressor as less stressful (p = .006, d = 0.96). Finally, mediation analyzes show that the subjective appraisal of the situation partially mediated the effect of sex on cortisol increase through, b = −37.6046, BCA CI [−101.78, −1.54].

Conclusions: Overall, the results are in line with previous literature, that is higher cortisol increases due to stress but less perceived stress in males. Our preliminary data shows that the differences between men and women are in part due to the cognitive appraisal of the stressor. Potentially, trait-like differences between participants such as emotional intelligence might fully explain sex differences in cortisol changes after psychosocial stress. Whether this discordance between biological and subjective stress responses is of relevance for health needs to be investigated in future studies.
Original languageEnglish
Issue numberSupplement
Pages (from-to)19
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2016