Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test

Psychology Department and Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY 10003.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Impact Factor: 9.67). 08/2013; 110(37). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305706110
Source: PubMed


Cognitive emotion regulation has been widely shown in the laboratory to be an effective way to alter the nature of emotional responses. Despite its success in experimental contexts, however, we often fail to use these strategies in everyday life where stress is pervasive. The successful execution of cognitive regulation relies on intact executive functioning and engagement of the prefrontal cortex, both of which are rapidly impaired by the deleterious effects of stress. Because it is specifically under stressful conditions that we may benefit most from such deliberate forms of emotion regulation, we tested the efficacy of cognitive regulation after stress exposure. Participants first underwent fear-conditioning, where they learned that one stimulus (CS+) predicted an aversive outcome but another predicted a neutral outcome (CS-). Cognitive regulation training directly followed where participants were taught to regulate fear responses to the aversive stimulus. The next day, participants underwent an acute stress induction or a control task before repeating the fear-conditioning task using these newly acquired regulation skills. Skin conductance served as an index of fear arousal, and salivary α-amylase and cortisol concentrations were assayed as neuroendocrine markers of stress response. Although groups showed no differences in fear arousal during initial fear learning, nonstressed participants demonstrated robust fear reduction following regulation training, whereas stressed participants showed no such reduction. Our results suggest that stress markedly impairs the cognitive regulation of emotion and highlights critical limitations of this technique to control affective responses under stress.

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Available from: Ashley A Shurick
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    • "Specifically, many forms of psychopathologies are characterized by high emotional intensity levels and impaired cognitive emotion regulation (Sheppes et al., 2015). Accordingly, our results add to several recent findings suggesting that particularly in highly stressful situations, engaging strategies such as reappraisal become less effective (Raio et al., 2013; Silvers et al., 2015). We extend these findings by showing that in these intense situations , effective disengaging strategies such as distraction can serve as a beneficial 'first aid' tool. "
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    ABSTRACT: While emotional intensity powerfully challenges regulatory strategies, its influence remains largely unexplored in affective-neuroscience. Accordingly, the present study addressed the moderating role of emotional intensity in two regulatory stages - implementation (during regulation) and pre-implementation (prior to regulation), of two major cognitive regulatory strategies - distraction and reappraisal. According to our framework, because distraction implementation involves early attentional disengagement from emotional information before it gathers force, in high-intensity it should be more effective in the short-term, relative to reappraisal, which modulates emotional processing only at a late semantic meaning phase. Supporting findings showed that in high (but not low) intensity, distraction implementation resulted in stronger modulation of negative experience, reduced neural emotional processing (centro-parietal Late Positive Potential, LPP), with suggestive evidence for less cognitive effort (frontal-LPP), relative to reappraisal. Related pre-implementation findings confirmed that anticipating regulation of high-intensity stimuli resulted in distraction (over reappraisal) preference. By contrast, anticipating regulation of low-intensity stimuli resulted in reappraisal (over distraction) preference, which is most beneficial for long-term adaptation. Furthermore, anticipating cognitively demanding regulation, either in cases of regulating counter to these preferences or via the more effortful strategy of reappraisal, enhanced neural attentional resource allocation (Stimulus Preceding Negativity, SPN). Broad implications are discussed. © The Author (2015). Published by Oxford University Press. For Permissions, please email:
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
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    • "Based on this research, a recent study in our laboratory tested the hypothesis that cognitive emotion regulation would be impaired after exposure to stress (Raio et al., 2013). After a fearconditioning task where physiological arousal was measured as an index of fear, participants were trained to re-appraise an aversive CS and re-structure the fear-conditioning task overall in a less threatening manner. "
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    ABSTRACT: Fear learning and regulation is as a prominent model for describing the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders and stress-related psychopathology. Fear expression can be modulated using a number of regulatory strategies, including extinction, cognitive emotion regulation, avoidance strategies and reconsolidation. In this review, we examine research investigating the effects of acute stress and stress hormones on these regulatory techniques. We focus on what is known about the impact of stress on the ability to flexibly regulate fear responses that are acquired through Pavlovian fear conditioning. Our primary aim is to explore the impact of stress on fear regulation in humans. Given this, we focus on techniques where stress has been linked to alterations of fear regulation in humans (extinction and emotion regulation), and briefly discuss other techniques (avoidance and reconsolidation) where the impact of stress or stress hormones have been mainly explored in animal models. These investigations reveal that acute stress may impair the persistent inhibition of fear, presumably by altering prefrontal cortex function. Characterizing the effects of stress on fear regulation is critical for understanding the boundaries within which existing regulation strategies are viable in everyday life and can better inform treatment options for those who suffer from anxiety and stress-related psychopathology.
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2015
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    • "During the cognitive reappraisal of emotion, it has, for example, been demonstrated that the activity of the amygdala is down-regulated (measured as change in BOLD signal), whereas the activity in portions of the lateral and medial prefrontal cortex is upregulated [31]–[36]. Moreover, it was recently shown that the ability to cognitively down- regulate negative emotion was severely jeopardized after stress exposure [37]. It is, thus, possible that subjects reporting cognitive and emotional dysfunction due to chronic occupational stress could have an impaired ability to modulate emotional stress and emotionally stressful stimuli, rendering them less apt to cope with psychosocial stress. "
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    ABSTRACT: Despite mounting reports about the negative effects of chronic occupational stress on cognitive and emotional functions, the underlying mechanisms are unknown. Recent findings from structural MRI raise the question whether this condition could be associated with a functional uncoupling of the limbic networks and an impaired modulation of emotional stress. To address this, 40 subjects suffering from burnout symptoms attributed to chronic occupational stress and 70 controls were investigated using resting state functional MRI. The participants' ability to up- regulate, down-regulate, and maintain emotion was evaluated by recording their acoustic startle response while viewing neutral and negatively loaded images. Functional connectivity was calculated from amygdala seed regions, using explorative linear correlation analysis. Stressed subjects were less capable of down-regulating negative emotion, but had normal acoustic startle responses when asked to up-regulate or maintain emotion and when no regulation was required. The functional connectivity between the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex correlated with the ability to down-regulate negative emotion. This connectivity was significantly weaker in the burnout group, as was the amygdala connectivity with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the motor cortex, whereas connectivity from the amygdala to the cerebellum and the insular cortex were stronger. In subjects suffering from chronic occupational stress, the functional couplings within the emotion- and stress-processing limbic networks seem to be altered, and associated with a reduced ability to down-regulate the response to emotional stress, providing a biological substrate for a further facilitation of the stress condition.
    Full-text · Article · Sep 2014 · PLoS ONE
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