Acute stressor experiences may influence cognition, possibly through actions of cognitive flexibility, which comprises the ability to modify cognitive and behavioral strategies in response to changing environmental demands. In the present investigation, we examined the effects of an acute psychosocial stressor (the Trier Social Stress Test) on a specific form of cognitive flexibility, namely that of set-shifting, which was assessed by the Berg’s Card Sorting Task (BCST). Among undergraduate students, the stressor promoted better performance on the BSCT relative to that evident among nonstressed individuals, including a reduction of perseverative (an index of enhanced set-shifting) and non-perseverative errors. They also required fewer trials to learn the first sorting category, reflecting augmented acquisition of an attentional set, but did not differ in the ability to maintain a set. Moreover, increased cortisol levels specifically mediated the enhancing effects of the acute stressor on set-shifting, but not the ability to acquire and maintain an attentional set. However, this enhancing effect was minimized among individuals who appraised the stressor as being uncontrollable. These data indicate that an acute, social-evaluative stressor can facilitate certain forms of cognitive flexibility, such as set-shifting. The present investigation also highlights the value of focusing on psychological and physiological mediators in determining the impact of stressful experiences on cognitive functioning.Lay summary A brief social stressor (public speaking) can have an enhancing effect on mental flexibility, and this seems to be related to the stress hormone, cortisol. This cognitive enhancing effect, however, might be minimized if a stressful situation is perceived as beyond a person’s control.

Acute stress, cognitive flexibility, cortisol, perceived control, set-shifting, stress appraisals
Department of Neuroscience

Gabrys, R.L. (Robert L.), Howell, J.W. (Jesse W.), Cebulski, S.F. (Sarah F.), Anisman, H. (Hymie), & Matheson, K. (2019). Acute stressor effects on cognitive flexibility: mediating role of stressor appraisals and cortisol. Stress. doi:10.1080/10253890.2018.1494152