Social evaluative threat with verbal performance feedback alters neuroendocrine response to stress

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Laboratory stress tasks such as the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) have provided a key piece to the puzzle for how psychosocial stress impacts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, other stress-responsive biomarkers, and ultimately wellbeing. These tasks are thought to work through biopsychosocial processes, specifically social evaluative threat and the uncontrollability heighten situational demands. The present study integrated an experimental modification to the design of the TSST to probe whether additional social evaluative threat, via negative verbal feedback about speech performance, can further alter stress reactivity in 63 men and women. This TSST study confirmed previous findings related to stress reactivity and stress recovery but extended this literature in several ways. First, we showed that additional social evaluative threat components, mid-task following the speech portion of the TSST, were still capable of enhancing the psychosocial stressor. Second, we considered stress-reactive hormones beyond cortisol to include dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone, and found these hormones were also stress-responsive, and their release was coupled with one another. Third, we explored whether gain- and loss-framing incentive instructions, meant to influence performance motivation by enhancing the personal relevance of task performance, impacted hormonal reactivity. Results showed that each hormone was stress reactive and further had different responses to the modified TSST compared to the original TSST. Beyond the utility of showing how the TSST can be modified with heightened social evaluative threat and incentive-framing instructions, this study informs about how these three stress-responsive hormones have differential responses to the demands of a challenge and a stressor.

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