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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test.


PMID 23980142

Abstract

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.