Associations of social processing abilities with psychosocial stress sensitivity

Compr Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2022 Sep 16;12:100159. doi: 10.1016/j.cpnec.2022.100159. eCollection 2022 Nov.


Through the long-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, chronic psychosocial stress can compromise mental and bodily health. Psychosocial stress is determined by the perception of social interactions as ego-threatening, and thus strongly influenced by individual social processing capacities. In the current study, we investigated whether three key components of social processing are linked to how individuals respond to the experience of acute psychosocial stress exposure. Empathy, compassion, and Theory of Mind (ToM) were assessed using a state-of-the-art paradigm, the EmpaToM. Participants (N = 118) also underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a standardized psychosocial laboratory stress test. Stress responses were measured in terms of salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase, heart-rate, high-frequency heart-rate variability (HF-HRV), and subjective stress experience. ToM performance correlated with different aspects of the acute psychosocial stress response. More specifically, higher levels of ToM were linked to increased alpha-amylase and reduced HF-HRV sensitivity to stress. Empathy and compassion levels had no influence on stress sensitivity. We conclude that ToM performance has a stable albeit contradictory association with acute psychosocial stress, while empathy and compassion tendencies appear to be largely unrelated. Overall, the relationship between EmpaToM-derived empathy, compassion, and ToM characteristics with stress sensitivity in the TSST is relatively weak.

Keywords: Compassion; Cortisol; Empathy; Psychosocial stress; Theory of mind.