This is how stress weakens our ability to control our emotions
What happens in these kinds of situations when we are stressed? The reaction is a complex process that requires the involvement of several cognitive functions such as attention, flexibility, and control, and that aims at regulating responses to emotionally salient stimuli. However, sometimes it seems impossible to control our emotional responses, and then we react in ways that we often regret afterward. Therefore, it is important to understand why our emotional control is weakened.
Why do we struggle to stay calm?
Researchers from the New York University showed in an experiment the effect of stress on emotion regulation abilities. The study participants first went through a fear conditioning procedure in which the participants saw pictures of snakes or spiders. Afterwards, the participants attended emotion regulation training aimed to help to attenuate the emotional response produced by the pictures.
The next day the participants were divided into two groups in which the stress levels were manipulated. The stress-group had to hold their arm in ice cold water for three minutes; a procedure which has previously been shown to increase stress levels measured by the stress hormone cortisol.
The control group put their arm for the same time into room-temperature water. Afterwards, the participants again performed the fear-conditioning task. The researchers found that participants in the control group (room-temperature water) were able to apply the emotion regulation strategies learned the previous day, whereas the fear response to the pictures associated with pain persisted in the participants in the stress group (ice-cold water).
Cortisol is a part of our “Flight or Fight” mechanism and is released in response to fear or stress. The biggest problem about cortisol is that it requires a physical release. Otherwise, cortisol levels do build up in the blood and significantly affect our body and cognitive functions, as emotional control, memory, attention.
How to reduce stress? Even the most powerful brain needs training
These findings showed that emotion regulation is weakened when we are under stress. This explains why after a stressful day at work or an argument with a partner it is difficult to overcome irritating situations and not to react in exaggerated ways. However, the researchers note that longer periods of emotion regulation training is likely to make it easier to apply emotion regulation strategies also in stressful situations.
Scientists have also shown that regular cognitive training can increase general executive functions, as emotional control. According to a study published in 2013, working memory training is very well suited to improve emotional regulation, thus increasing our well-being and patience.
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 Candace M. Raio, Temidayo A. Orederu, Laura Palazzolo, Ashley A. Shurick, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test. August 26, 2013.