Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Fighting fear with a stress hormone

In Brief

Fighting fear with a stress hormone

Swiss researchers have found that artificially raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is normally released by the adrenal glands in frightening situations, can paradoxically relieve performance anxiety and phobias.

In one experiment, 20 people with severe performance anxiety (social phobia) were divided into two groups that took a dose of either cortisone (which the body transforms into cortisol) or a placebo. An hour later they were surprised with a request to give a speech and do mental arithmetic before an audience and while being filmed.

The subjects who took cortisone showed less anxiety while waiting to perform, during the performance, and afterward. Learning of the surprise test increased heart rates only in the group taking the placebo. And after the speech, heart rates returned to normal faster among those who took cortisone. Cortisone had no effect on overall anxiety or on people with performance anxiety who were not put to this test.

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