Even mild stress makes controlling emotions difficult

Washington: Even mild stress can ruin therapeutic measures that are being used to control emotions, a new study has claimed.

A team of neuroscientists at New York University pointed to the limits of clinical techniques while also shedding new light on the barriers that must be overcome in addressing afflictions such as fear or anxiety.

Senior author said Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU`s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, said that what people learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when they are 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.

To check whether these techniques hold up in the real world when accompanied by the stress of everyday life, the researchers 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 fear conditioning procedure, the participants were taught cognitive strategies-akin to those prescribed by therapists and collectively titled cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)-in order to learn to diminish the fears brought on by the experiment.

On the next day, the participants were put into two groups: "the stress group" and "the control group." 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.

After a short delay, the researchers then tested the participants` fear response 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 control group 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.

Their findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences