Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research

Psychol Bull. 2004 May;130(3):355-91. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.355.


This meta-analysis reviews 208 laboratory studies of acute psychological stressors and tests a theoretical model delineating conditions capable of eliciting cortisol responses. Psychological stressors increased cortisol levels; however, effects varied widely across tasks. Consistent with the theoretical model, motivated performance tasks elicited cortisol responses if they were uncontrollable or characterized by social-evaluative threat (task performance could be negatively judged by others), when methodological factors and other stressor characteristics were controlled for. Tasks containing both uncontrollable and social-evaluative elements were associated with the largest cortisol and adrenocorticotropin hormone changes and the longest times to recovery. These findings are consistent with the animal literature on the physiological effects of uncontrollable social threat and contradict the belief that cortisol is responsive to all types of stressors.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adolescent
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / biosynthesis
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / biosynthesis
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Motivation
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Saliva
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Environment
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Time Factors


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone