Anxiety and stress can predict pain perception following a cognitive stress

Physiol Behav. 2010 Aug 4;101(1):87-92. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.04.021. Epub 2010 Apr 29.


Hoeger Bement, M.K., A. Weyer, M. Keller, A. Harkins, and S.K. Hunter. Anxiety and stress can predict pain perception following a cognitive stressor. PHYSIOL BEHAV 000-000. The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of a cognitive stressor on pain perception and determine individual characteristics that may predict the pain response. Twenty-five subjects participated in three sessions: one familiarization and two experimental. The experimental sessions involved measurement of pain perception before and after 1) mental math tasks (stressor session) and 2) quiet rest (control session). Pain threshold and ratings were assessed with a mechanical noxious stimulus. Changes in stress and anxiety were examined with self-reported and physiological measures including questionnaires, visual analogue scales, and salivary cortisol levels. During the control session, stress and anxiety decreased and pain reports remain unchanged. During the stressor session, stress and anxiety increased and pain reports were variable among subjects. Based on the pain response to mental math, subjects were divided into three groups (increase, decrease or no change in pain). The increase-pain group (n=8) had lower baseline stress and anxiety, lower baseline pain reports, and large anxiety response following the mental math. In contrast, the decrease-pain group (n=9) had higher baseline stress and anxiety levels, higher baseline pain reports, and a large increase in cortisol levels. Thus, the differential response in the changes in pain perception was related to anxiety and stress levels prior to and during the cognitive stressor, indicating that psychosocial characteristics can help determine the stress-induced pain response.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts
  • Mental Processes
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Pain Threshold / psychology*
  • Reference Values
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone