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Journal Article

Specific reduction in the cortisol awakening response after socio-affective mental training


Engert,  Veronika       
Institute of Psychosocial Medicine, Psychotherapy, and Psycho-Oncology, Jena University Hospital, Germany;
Research Group Social Stress and Family Health, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Engert, V., Hoehne, K., & Singer, T. (2023). Specific reduction in the cortisol awakening response after socio-affective mental training. Mindfulness. doi:10.1007/s12671-023-02074-y.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000C-9ED1-6
Psychosocial stress is an inherent part of modern lifestyle, and many suffer from chronic stress exposure and the subsequent development of stress-related diseases. In searching for efficient low-cost interventions to reduce stress, we investigated the effects of regular contemplative mental practice on diurnal cortisol activity as an indicator of the basal, everyday stress load.

Data were collected in the context of the ReSource Project, an open-label efficacy trial comprising three distinct 3-month training modules targeting attention and interoception (Presence Module), socio-affective (Affect Module) or socio-cognitive abilities (Perspective Module) through dyadic exercises and secularized meditation practices. Diurnal cortisol activity was assayed at four time points: pre-training and after 3, 6, and 9 months. As outcome measures, the cortisol awakening response (CAR), cortisol slope over the course of the day, and total daily cortisol output were computed.

Analyses revealed a stable reduction in CAR specifically after the compassion- and care-based Affect Module, contrasted by a CAR increase following the attention- and interoception-based Presence training. Cortisol slope over the day and total daily cortisol output were unaffected by any of the mental trainings.

These findings emphasize the necessity for a more granular approach in the investigation of contemplative mental training effects. Not all types of training can be expected to equally beneficial for all types of hardship. Specifically, with regard to the CAR, which represents the anticipatory stress response to the upcoming day, compassion- and care-based qualities rather than bare attention or meta-cognitive skills seem to drive stress reduction.