Intra-individual psychological and physiological responses to acute laboratory stressors of different intensity

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015 Jan;51:227-36. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.10.002. Epub 2014 Oct 13.


Objectives: The phenomenon of stress is understood as a multidimensional concept which can be captured by psychological and physiological measures. There are various laboratory stress protocols which enable stress to be investigated under controlled conditions. However, little is known about whether these protocols differ with regard to the induced psycho-physiological stress response pattern.

Methods: In a within-subjects design, 20 healthy young men underwent four of the most common stress protocols (Stroop test [Stroop], cold pressor test [CPT], Trier Social Stress Test [TSST], and bicycle ergometer test [Ergometer]) and a no-stress control condition (rest) in a randomized order. For the multidimensional assessment of the stress response, perceived stress, endocrine and autonomic biomarkers (salivary cortisol, salivary alpha-amylase, and heart rate) were obtained during the experiments.

Results: All stress protocols evoked increases in perceived stress levels, with the highest levels in the TSST, followed by Ergometer, Stroop, and CPT. The highest HPA axis response was found in the TSST, followed by Ergometer, CPT, and Stroop, whilst the highest autonomic response was found in the Ergometer, followed by TSST, Stroop, and CPT.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that different stress protocols differentially stimulate various aspects of the stress response. Physically demanding stress protocols such as the Ergometer test appear to be particularly suitable for evoking autonomic stress responses, whereas uncontrollable and social-evaluative threatening stressors (such as the TSST) are most likely to elicit HPA axis stress responses. The results of this study may help researchers in deciding which stress protocol to use, depending on the individual research question.

Keywords: Alpha-amylase; Cold pressor test; Cortisol; Ergometer; Heart rate; Laboratory stressor; Stress reactivity; Stroop test; Trier Social Stress Test.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Salivary alpha-Amylases / analysis
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Young Adult


  • Salivary alpha-Amylases
  • Hydrocortisone