Better executive function under stress mitigates the effects of recent life stress exposure on health in young adults

Stress. 2017 Jan;20(1):75-85. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2017.1286322. Epub 2017 Feb 14.


Executive function is a neuropsychological construct that enables controlled cognitive processing, which has been hypothesized to enhance individuals' resilience to stress. However, little empirical work has directly examined how executive function under different conditions mitigates the negative effects of stress exposure on health. To address this issue, we recruited 110 healthy young adults and assessed their recent life stress exposure, executive function in either a stressful or non-stressful context, and current health complaints. Based on existing research, we hypothesized that individuals exhibiting better executive function following a laboratory-based stressor (but not a control task) would demonstrate weaker associations between recent stress exposure and health because they perceived recent life stressors as being less severe. Consistent with this hypothesis, better executive function during acute stress, but not in the absence of stress, was associated with an attenuated link between participants' recent life stress exposure and their current health complaints. Moreover, this attenuating effect was mediated by lesser perceptions of stressor severity. Based on these data, we conclude that better executive function under stress is associated with fewer health complaints and that these effects may occur by reducing individuals' perceptions of stressor severity. The data thus suggest the possibility of reducing stress-related health problems by enhancing executive function.

Keywords: Cumulative life stress; STRAIN; cognitive flexibility; disease; executive function; health; mediated moderation; resilience; risk; stress perception.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Perception
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult