Why does cortisol reduce anxiety

Cortisol against phobias

The body's own stress hormone cortisol reduces anxiety in certain phobias. This result of a study by scientists from the University of Zurich has just been published in the online edition of the science journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

Phobias such as spider phobia or social phobia are widespread. A common feature of all phobias is a pronounced and disproportionate fear of certain objects or situations, such as looking at a spider in the case of a spider phobia or holding a public lecture in the case of a social phobia.

Prof. Dominique de Quervain from the Department of Psychiatric Research at the University of Zurich, based on his previous studies, suspected that cortisol might have an anxiety-relieving effect on phobias. In the current study, de Quervain and his colleagues were able to show that cortisol does indeed reduce anxiety in two common phobias.

Less fear of spiders

In collaboration with Dr. Leila Soravia and Dr. Markus Heinrichs from the Psychological Institute at the University of Zurich, de Quervain examined the effects of cortisone (a precursor to cortisol) on social phobia. One hour before a free lecture, a group of people was given cortisone in tablet form.

Compared to the dummy preparation, cortisone led to a significant reduction in anxiety when speaking. In addition, indications were found that people who react with a high level of endogenous cortisol release due to the dreaded situation also develop less fear.

In the spider phobics, who were confronted with the spider pictures several times at intervals of a few days, the fear even decreased from session to session and did not increase again even after the end of the treatment. According to the researchers, the stress hormone likely blocks the retrieval of the negative memories during a phobia attack while also ensuring that they are overwritten with the new, less dire memories.

Further studies are now planned to review the clinical significance of the findings and to examine the effects of cortisol in combination with behavioral therapy.

Cortisol could help against phobias

Treatment with the stress hormone cortisol can reduce extreme anxiety in people with phobias. This was shown by an international team of researchers in a study with a total of 60 volunteers, some of whom suffered from a spider phobia and others from a pathological fear of appearing in public. In both cases, even small doses of the hormone reduced the feelings of panic that the test subjects normally felt in the corresponding situations. The researchers report that it is likely that cortisol influences which memories are recalled during a phobia attack.

Fear memory inhibition as a mechanism?

Phobics find themselves in a kind of vicious circle: in their panic, they combine harmless situations or objects with their emotions and then save the resulting extremely negative impression as a real memory. As soon as they are faced with the corresponding situation again, this memory is called up and increases the already existing feelings of fear.

It is already known from previous studies that the stress hormone cortisol is released during such a phobia attack. However, it was not yet clear whether the substance has an influence on the symptoms of anxiety. To investigate this, Leila Soravia from the University of Zurich and her colleagues confronted their test subjects with the situations they were most afraid of: the participants with social phobia were asked to give a speech in front of an audience and the arachnophobics were shown realistic depictions of large spiders . One hour before this test, the scientists gave the test subjects either a drug-free placebo, a dose of cortisol or the closely related cortisone. In both phobia variants, the hormones significantly reduced feelings of fear, the evaluation showed.

The natural increase in cortisol levels in the blood is apparently a defense reaction of the body to prevent extreme panic. Since, in contrast to other psychoactive agents, cortisol only influenced the feelings of fear in connection with the phobia, the scientists now hope to be able to develop a targeted therapy against these anxiety disorders on the basis of their results.

University of Zurich: Cortisol against phobias