Cortisol and Cardiac Reactivity in the Context of Sex Discrimination: The Moderating Effects of Mood and Perceived Control

Kimberly Matheson*, Ritu Gill, Owen Kelly, Hymie Anisman
Department of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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© 2008 et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1S 5B6; Tel: (613) 520- 3570; Fax: (613) 520-3945; E-mail:


The high incidence of stressor-related pathologies among stigmatized groups has been associated with experiences of discrimination. The present study demonstrated that following a mood priming manipulation (anger vs. sadness), an acute sex discrimination event influenced women’s (N=61) salivary cortisol levels as well as systolic (SBP) and diastolic (DBP) blood pressure. Among women primed to feel sad, cortisol levels declined over the course of the experimental session, likely reflecting a decline of arousal. However, among those primed to feel angry the cortisol levels were sustained over the session, especially if they perceived the possibility of rectifying their failed status (control). As well, SBP and DBP increased following the discrimination experience irrespective of perceived control. Among women primed to feel angry, feelings of hostility were associated with higher SBP and heart rate. Evidently, sex discrimination affects stress-reactive physiological systems among women, and might thus influence vulnerability to pathology.

Keywords: Sex discrimination, anger, hostility, perceived control, cortisol, cardiovascular reactivity.