Most psychosocial stress studies assess the overall cortisol response without further identifying the temporal dynamics within hormone levels. It has been shown, however, that the amplitude of anticipatory cortisol stress levels has a unique predictive value for psychological health. So far, no "best practice" in how to investigate the anticipatory cortisol stress response has emerged. The goal of the current research was to develop a protocol that would allow for a sensitive and easy-to-implement laboratory-based investigation into anticipatory cortisol stress levels. We initially tested 26 healthy men in either an anticipation- or stress-only condition of the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) to map the distinct timelines of anticipatory and reactive cortisol release profiles (study 1). Subsequently, we administered the TSST to 50 healthy men such that the cortisol responses to anticipatory and reactive stress components could be dissociated (study 2). In both studies we sampled saliva cortisol at high frequency (at baseline, during 10min of anticipation and during and after 10min of acute stress) and the current mood state pre- and post-stress. We found anticipatory responder rates of 20% and 40%, with peak anticipatory cortisol levels between 14 and 20min after onset of anticipation. Visible changes in reactive cortisol levels occurred only after the termination of the acute stressor. We conclude that the best practice to detect a maximum number of anticipatory responders in the TSST would be to extend the anticipation phase to 15min. In doing so, the anticipatory cortisol peak could be captured at a time-point of the actual stressor that is uninfluenced by reactive cortisol levels. Overall, we could reveal several features of anticipatory responders. Most importantly, there was a positive correlation between anticipatory and reactive stress responses. There was no association between anticipatory cortisol and alpha-amylase as well as subjective-psychological stress responses. Future studies will have to determine whether the anticipatory responders differ with respect to various stress-sensitive parameters like sex, personality, psychological wellbeing or chronic stress.
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