Association between Cold Face Test-induced vagal inhibition and cortisol response to acute stress


  • We gratefully acknowledge the help of Susanne Fischer in conducting the experiments. This study was supported by a grant to the first author from the Forschungs- und Nachwuchsförderungskommission der Universität Zürich.

Address correspondence to: Ulrike Ehlert, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, University of Zurich, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/Box 26, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland. E-mail:


Low vagal function is related to several disorders. One possible underlying mechanism linking the vagus nerve and disorders is the HPA axis. Thirty-three healthy male subjects participated in a stress task, while heart rate (HR), respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), salivary cortisol, and mood were assessed. Vagal function was determined using baseline, stress-induced inhibition, and Cold Face Test (CFT)-induced stimulation. The stress task induced a significant increase in cortisol and HR, a decrease in RSA, and a worsening of mood. A linear regression model with the time from CFT onset until maximum bradycardia as the independent variable explained 17.9% of the total variance in cortisol in response to the stressor (mood: 36.5%). The results indicate that a faster CFT response is associated with reduced cortisol increase and enhanced mood after acute stress. Our data support an inverse relationship between vagal function and the HPA axis.