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Men and Women React Differently to Acute Stress


A new study provides early evidence of sex differences in rapid effects of stress systems on the cognitive control of negative emotions.


  • The study included 80 healthy participants, mean age 24 years.

  • Half the subjects immersed their nondominant hand (including the wrist) in ice water for up to 3 minutes; the other half, which served as the control group, immersed their hand in warm water for three minutes.

  • Participants were asked to deliberately downregulate emotional responses to high intensity negative pictures.

  • Participants regularly provided saliva samples to check cortisol levels and were monitored for cardiovascular activity.

  • Researchers assessed pupil dilation, which along with subject ratings of their affective state served as emotion regulation (ER) outcome measures.


  • In men, stress rapidly improved the ability to downregulate emotional arousal via distraction that was fully mediated by cortisol.

  • In women, sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactivity was linked to decreased regulatory performances.

  • Direct stress effects on ER were smaller than expected.


The study contributes to a “better understanding of the neuroendocrinological mechanisms of stress effects on ER that may help to develop adequate preventive and curative interventions of stress- and emotion-related disorders,” the researchers write.


The study was conducted by Katja Langer, Valerie Jentsch, and Oliver Wolf from the Department of Cognitive Psychology, Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. It was published in the May 2023 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.


The results have some inconsistencies. The ER paradigm is somewhat artificial and not fully comparable with emotional trigger and regulatory requirements in everyday life. The study did not directly assess levels of catecholamines such as adrenaline and noradrenaline.


The study received support from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The authors have no reported conflicts of interest.

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