Study: Mild stress can make it difficult to control your emotions

December 12, 2013 by James Devitt

Even mild stress can thwart therapeutic measures to control emotions, a team of NYU neuroscientists has found.

Their findings, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, point to the limits of clinical techniques while also shedding new light on the barriers that must be overcome in addressing afflictions such as or anxiety.

"We have long suspected that can impair our ability to control our emotions, but this is the first study to document how even can undercut therapies designed to keep our emotions in check," says Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science and the study's senior author. "In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you're stressed."

In addressing patients' emotional maladies, therapists sometimes use cognitive restructuring techniques—encouraging patients to alter their thoughts or approach to a situation to change their emotional response. These might include focusing on the positive or non-threatening aspects of an event or stimulus that might normally produce fear.

But do these techniques hold up in the real world when accompanied by the stress of everyday life? This is the question the researchers sought to answer. To do so, they designed a two-day experiment in which the study's participants employed techniques like those used in clinics as a way to combat their fears.

On the first day, the researchers created a fear among the study's participants using a commonly employed "fear conditioning" technique. Specifically, the participants viewed pictures of snakes or spiders. Some of the pictures were occasionally accompanied by a mild shock to the wrist, while others were not. Participants developed fear responses to the pictures paired with shock as measured by physiological arousal and self-report.

After the procedure, the participants were taught cognitive strategies—akin to those prescribed by therapists and collectively titled cognitive-behavioral therapy—in order to learn to diminish the fears brought on by the experiment.

On the next day, the participants were put into two groups. In the "stress group," participants' hands were submerged in icy water for three minutes—a standard method for creating a mild stress response in psychological studies.

In the control group, subjects' hands were submerged in mildly warm water. To determine that the participants in the stress group were, in fact, stressed, the researchers gauged each participant's levels of salivary cortisol, which the human body is known to produce in response to stress. Those in the stress group showed a significant increase in cortisol following the stress manipulation, whereas there was no change in the control group.

The researchers then tested the ' to the same pictures of snakes or spiders in order to determine if stress undermined the utilization of the cognitive techniques taught the previous day.

As expected, the showed diminished fear response to the images, suggesting they were able to employ the cognitive training from the previous day. However, even though the stress group received identical training, they showed no reduction in fear, indicating they were unable to use these cognitive techniques to reduce fear on the second day.

"Our results suggest that even mild stress, such as that encountered in daily life, may impair the ability to use cognitive techniques known to control fear and anxiety," says Candace Raio, a doctoral student and the study's lead author. "However, with practice or after longer intervals of cognitive training, these strategies may become more habitual and less sensitive to the effects of stress."

Explore further: Even mild stress can make it difficult to control your emotions, study finds

Related Stories

Even mild stress can make it difficult to control your emotions, study finds

August 26, 2013
Even mild stress can thwart therapeutic measures to control emotions, a team of neuroscientists at New York University has found. Their findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ...

Memory appears susceptible to eradication of fear responses

February 18, 2013
Fear responses can only be erased when people learn something new while retrieving the fear memory. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by scientists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and published in the leading ...

Keeping emotions in check may not always benefit psychological health

October 28, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Being able to regulate your emotions is important for well-being, but new research suggests that a common emotion regulation strategy called "cognitive reappraisal" may actually be harmful when it comes ...

Where and how are fear-related behaviors and anxiety disorders controlled?

November 21, 2013
Using an approach combining in vivo recordings and optogenetic manipulations in mice, the researchers succeeded in showing that the inhibition of parvalbumin-expressing prefrontal interneurons triggers a chain reaction resulting ...

Growing up poor and stressed impacts brain function as an adult

October 21, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Childhood poverty and chronic stress may lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult, according to research published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Recommended for you

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

Using money to buy time linked to increased happiness

July 24, 2017
New research is challenging the age-old adage that money can't buy happiness.

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.