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Unconscious Fearful Priming Followed by a Psychosocial Stress Test Results in Higher Cortisol Levels

Authors

  • Alexander Hänsel,

    Corresponding author
    • Department of General Internal Medicine, Division of Psychosomatic Medicine, Inselspital, Bern University Hospital, University of Bern, Switzerland
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  • Roland von Känel

    1. Department of General Internal Medicine, Division of Psychosomatic Medicine, Inselspital, Bern University Hospital, University of Bern, Switzerland
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Correspondence: Alexander Hänsel, Department of General Internal Medicine, Division of Psychosomatic Medicine, Inselspital, Bern University Hospital, Switzerland.

Email: Alexander.haensel@insel.ch

Abstract

Human perception of stress includes an automatic pathway that processes subliminal presented stimuli below the threshold of conscious awareness. Subliminal stimuli can therefore activate the physiologic stress system. Unconscious emotional signals were shown to significantly moderate reactions and responses to subsequent stimuli, an effect called ‘priming’.

We hypothesized that subliminal presentation of a fearful signal during the Stroop task compared with an emotionally neutral one will prime stress reactivity in a subsequently applied psychosocial stress task, thereby yielding a significant increase in salivary cortisol. Half of 36 participants were repeatedly presented either a fearful face or a neutral one. After this, all underwent a psychosocial stress task. The fearful group showed a significant increase in cortisol levels (p = 0.022). This change was not affected by sex, age and body mass index, and it also did not change when taking resting cortisol levels into account. Post-hoc analyses showed that the increase in cortisol in the fearful group started immediately after the psychosocial stress test. Hence, subliminal exposure to a fearful signal in combination with the Stroop and followed by a psychosocial stress test leads to an increase in stress reactivity. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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