We describe a method to administer a controlled, effective stressor to humans in the laboratory. The method combines the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and the Cold Pressor Test into a single, believable procedure called the Fear-Factor Stress Test (FFST). In the procedure, participants imagine auditioning for the reality television show Fear Factor. They stand before a video recorder and a panel of judges while (a) delivering a motivational speech, (b) performing a verbal arithmetic task, and (c) placing one hand into a bucket of ice water for up to 2 min. We measured subjective anxiety, heart rate, and salivary cortisol in three groups of young adults (n = 30 each, equal numbers of men and women): FFST, TSST, and Control (a placebo version of the FFST). Although the FFST and TSST groups were not distinguishable at the cortisol measure taken 5 min post-manipulation, at 35 min postmanipulation average cortisol levels in the TSST group had returned to baseline, whereas those in the FFST group continued to rise. The proportion of individual cortisol responders (≥ 2 nmol/l increase over baseline) in the TSST and FFST groups did not differ at the 5-min measure, but at the 35-min measure the FFST group contained significantly more responders. The findings indicate that the FFST induces a more robust and sustained cortisol response (which we assume is a marker of an HPA-axis response) than the TSST, and that it does so without increasing participant discomfort or incurring appreciably greater resource and time costs.
Cold Pressor Test (CPT) Cortisol Hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis Physiological stressor Psychosocial stressor Trier Social Stress Test (TSST)
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
This research was supported in part by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF). We thank Marc Dey for his help in formulating the Fear-Factor Stress Test, and Katharine James for her critique of the manuscript.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
de Geus EJC, van Doornen LJP (1996) Ambulatory assessment of parasympathetic/sympathetic balance by impedance cardiography. In: Fahrenberg J, Myrtek M (eds) Ambulatory assessment. Computer assisted psychological and psychophysiological methods in monitoring and field studies. Hogrefe & Huber, Berlin, pp 141–164Google Scholar
Dickerson SS, Kemeny ME (2004) Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychol Bull 130:355–391PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dickerson SS, Mycek PJ, Zaldivar F (2008) Negative social evaluation, but not mere social presence, elicits cortisol responses to a laboratory stressor task. Health Psychol 27:116–121PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Duncko R, Cornwell B, Cui L, Merikangas KR, Grillon C (2007) Acute exposure to stress improves performance in trace eyeblink conditioning and spatial learning tasks in healthy men. Learn Mem 14:329–335PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Erickson K, Drevets W, Schulkin J (2003) Glucocorticoid regulation of diverse cognitive functions in normal and pathological emotional states. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 27:233–246PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fehm-Wolfsdorf G, Soherr U, Arndt R, Kern W, Fehm HL, Nagel D (1993) Auditory reflex thresholds elevated by stress-induced cortisol secretion. Psychoneuroendocrino 18(8):579–589Google Scholar
Foley P, Kirschbaum C (2010) Human hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to acute psychosocial stress in laboratory settings. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 35:91–96PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hellhammer J, Schubert M (2012) The physiological response to trier social stress test relates to subjective measures of stress during but not before or after the test. Psychoneuroendocrino 37:119–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Het H, Rohleder N, Schoofs D, Kirschbaum C, Wolf OT (2009) Neuroendocrine and psychometric evaluation of a placebo version of the ‘Trier social stress test’. Psychoneuroendocrino 34:1075–1086CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hines EA, Brown GE (1932) A standard stimulus for measuring vasomotor reactions: its application in the study of hypertension. P Staff M Mayo Clin 7:332–335Google Scholar
Kirschbaum C, Kudielka BM, Gaab J, Schommer N, Hellhammer DH (1999) Impact of gender, menstrual cycle phase, and oral contraceptives on the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Psychosom Med 61:154–162PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kirschbaum C, Pirke K-M, Hellhammer DH (1993) The ‘Trier-social stress test’: a tool for investigating psychobiological stress responses in a laboratory setting. Neuropsychobiology 28:76–81PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kirschbaum C, Wüst S, Hellhammer D (1992) Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress. Psychosom Med 54:648–657PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krauth J (2000) Experimental design. A handbook and dictionary for medical and behavioral research. Elsevier, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
Kudielka BM, Kirschbaum C (2005) Sex differences in HPA axis responses to stress: a review. Biol Psychol 69:113–132PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kudielka BM, Wüst S (2010) Human models in acute and chronic stress: assessing determinants of individual hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis activity and reactivity. Stress 13:1–14PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lupien SJ, Wilkinson CW, Briere S, Menard C, Ng Yin Kin NMK, Nair NPV (2008) The modulatory effects of corticosteroids on cognition: studies in young human populations. Psychoneuroendocrino 27:401–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McRae AL, Saladin ME, Brady KT, Upadhyaya H, Back SE, Timmerman MA (2006) Stress reactivity: biological and subjective responses to the cold pressor and Trier social stressors. Hum Psychopharm Clin 21:377–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mill JS (1843) A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive, being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. John W. Parker, LondonGoogle Scholar
Nater UM, Moor C, Okere U, Stallkamp R, Martin M, Ehlert U, Kliegel M (2007) Performance on a declarative memory task is better in high than low cortisol responders to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrino 32:758–763. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.05.006CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schwabe L, Haddad L, Schachinger H (2008) HPA axis activation by a socially evaluated cold pressor test. Psychoneuroendocrino 33:890–895CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shapiro AK, Morris LA (1978) The placebo effect in medical and psychological therapies. In: Garfield SL, Bergin AE (eds) Handbook of psychotherapy & behavior change, 2nd edn. Wiley, New York, pp 369–410Google Scholar
Smeets T, Cornelisse S, Quaedflieg CWEM, Meyer T, Jelicic M, Merckelback H (2012) Introducing the Maastricht social stress test: a quick and non-invasive approach to elicit autonomic and glucocorticoid stress responses. Psychoneuroendocrino 37:1998–2008. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.04.012CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spielberger CD, Gorsuch RL, Lushene R, Vagg PR, Jacobs GA (1983) Manual for the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo AltoGoogle Scholar
Wirtz PH, Ehlert U, Emini L, Suter T (2008) Higher body mass index (BMI) is associated with reduced glucocorticoid inhibition of inflammatory cytokine production following acute psychosocial stress in men. Psychoneuroendocrino 33:1102–1110CrossRefGoogle Scholar