Oxytocin, cortisol, and cognitive control during acute and naturalistic stress

Stress. 2021 Jul;24(4):370-383. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2021.1876658. Epub 2021 Feb 25.


Although stress is a strong risk factor for poor health, especially for women, it remains unclear how stress affects the key neurohormones cortisol and oxytocin, which influence stress-related risk and resilience. Whereas cortisol mediates energy mobilization during stress, oxytocin has anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, and analgesic effects that support social connection and survival across the lifespan. However, how these neurohormones interrelate and are associated with cognitive control of emotional information during stress remains unclear. To address these issues, we recruited 37 college-aged women (Mage = 19.19, SD = 1.58) and randomly assigned each to a one-hour experimental session consisting of either an acute stress (emotionally stressful video) or control (non-stressful video) condition in a cross-sectional manner across the semester. Salivary cortisol and oxytocin samples were collected at baseline and after the video, at which point participants also completed measures assessing affect and an emotional Stroop task. As hypothesized, the emotional stressor induced negative emotions that were associated with significant elevations in cortisol and faster Stroop reaction times. Moreover, higher baseline oxytocin predicted greater positive affect after the stressor and also better cognitive accuracy on the Stroop. Analyses examining the naturalistic stress effects revealed that basal oxytocin levels rose steeply three weeks before the semester's end, followed by rising cortisol levels one week later, with both neurohormones remaining elevated through the very stressful final exam period. Considered together, these data suggest that women's collective experiences of stress may be potentially buffered by a synchronous oxytocin surge that enhances cognitive accuracy and reduces stress "when the going gets tough".

Keywords: Oxytocin; buffering; cognitive control; cortisol; emotion regulation; resilience; stress.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone*
  • Oxytocin*
  • Saliva
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocin
  • Hydrocortisone