Stress Interferes with Emotional Control


A recent study by researchers at New York University suggests that even mild levels of everyday stress can interfere with a person’s ability to exercise emotional control. Specifically, the study found that therapies used to teach emotional control in the face of conditions such as social anxiety aren’t as effective in stressful situations.

Neuroscience professor Elizabeth Phelps, one of the lead researchers behind the study, said that the strategies you learn in a clinical setting may make sense when you learn them, but be less effective in real-world situations that involve a level of stress. She described the study as the first of its kind despite long-held suspicions that the ultimate findings matched reality. More research may need to be done before many stress relief tactics prove to be highly effective in the real world.

Study Participants Viewed “Shocking” Images

The emotional techniques taught in therapy are known as cognitive emotion regulation, and they can be as simple as thinking of a glass as being half full rather than half empty, according to Phelps, who described another example as learning to think of a party differently in order to better cope with feelings of social anxiety.

A total of 78 individuals participated in the study, and were shown photos of spiders and snakes, with certain pictures paired with a jarring but ultimately harmless electric shock. After cycling through the images multiple times, the participants began to report feelings of fear while viewing the images paired with a shock, and tests indicated a heightened level of physiological arousal when these images were viewed as well.

The participants were then taught various cognitive emotion regulation techniques in order to help them cope with the fear they experienced when viewing the images paired with an electric shock. One day later, the participants were split into two groups, with one group being asked to submerge their hands in warm water and the other group asked to submerge their hands in ice-cold water, a common stress-inducing technique presented in such experiments.

The individuals who placed their hands in very cold water exhibited the same levels of fear when viewing the images paired with electrical shocks as they did on the first day of the study, while the participants who submerged their hands in warm water exhibited lower levels of fear when viewing the same images. The researchers determined that the cold water group was less able to use the cognitive emotion regulation techniques they learned the previous day because the ice water elevated their stress levels.

Stress, Emotions and the Brain

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. However, according to Dr. Phelps, the prefrontal cortex is also highly susceptible to stress, which would certainly help to explain the findings of the study.

However, there is hope for those who have difficulty regulating their emotions due to stress. Dr. Phelps says that when a person practices cognitive emotion regulation techniques on a regular and frequent basis, they become ingrained in other areas of the brain and rely less on the prefrontal cortex. As with so many things in life, practice makes perfect.

The Bottom Line

Even small amounts of stress can greatly reduce the effectiveness of techniques designed to assist in emotional control, according to a new study.

The full text of the study can be found online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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