Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation

James L. Abelson, Thane M. Erickson, Stefanie E. Mayer, Jennifer Crocker, Hedieh Briggs, Nestor L. Lopez-Duran, Israel Liberzon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Background: The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a critical mediator linking stress to health. Understanding how to modulate its reactivity could potentially help reduce the detrimental health effects of HPA axis activation. Social evaluative threat is a potent activator of this system. Access to control and coping responses can reduce its reactivity to pharmacological activation. Compassionate or affiliative behaviors may also moderate stress reactivity. Impact of these moderators on social evaluative threat is unknown. Here, we tested the hypotheses that interventions to increase control, coping, or compassionate (versus competitive) goals could reduce HPA-axis response to social evaluative threat. Methods: Healthy participants (n=54) were exposed to social evaluative threat using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). They were randomly assigned to receive one of four different instructions prior to the stressor: Standard TSST instructions (SI), standard instructions with access to "control" (SI Control), or one of two cognitive interventions (CI) that (1) increased familiarity and helped participants prepare coping strategies (CI Coping), or (2) shifted goal orientation from self-promotion to helping others (CI Compassionate Goals). ACTH and cortisol were obtained before and after stress exposure via intravenous catheter. Results: Control alone had no effect. CI Compassionate Goals significantly reduced ACTH and cortisol responses to the TSST; CI Coping raised baseline levels. Compassionate Goals reduced hormonal responses without reducing subjective anxiety, stress or fear, while increasing expression of pro-social intentions and focus on helping others. Conclusions: Brief intervention to shift focus from competitive self-promotion to a goal orientation of helping-others can reduce HPA-axis activation to a potent psychosocial stressor. This supports the potential for developing brief interventions as inoculation tools to reduce the impact of predictable stressors and lends support to growing evidence that compassion and altruistic goals can moderate the effects of stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-70
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • ACTH
  • Compassion
  • Control
  • Coping
  • Cortisol
  • HPA
  • Psychosocial stress
  • Stress
  • Trier social stress test

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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