Study: Cognitive Regulation Fails Stress Test

by | Sep 22, 2014 | About Trauma

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences has challenged the assumption that we can “rethink our feelings” under stress. After analyzing their results, the researchers chose a title for their work that tells you exactly where they stand: “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test.

Here at the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, we absolutely believe, as one of our practitioners recently termed it, that “to get to emotional regulation, you need to go beyond cognitive.” In other words, when faced with real pressures of trauma and stress, we can't simply think our way around or through them. Prevention and healing of unhealthy traumatic responses requires a convergence of mind and body, to say nothing of our more ephemeral facets. It is not merely a chore for the brain.

The researchers of this 2013 study, representing five different institutions from NYU to Stanford, noticed that cognitive regulation only seemed to work in theory, or in the lab, but not so much in real life. So they set out to put it to a stress test. For those interested in the methodology, the study might be summarized as follows:

  1. Participants received “fear conditioning,” learning the difference between two forms of stimuli they would be encountering: one negative and one neutral.
  2. Immediately after, they all received cognitive regulation training, learning to consciously regulate their fear responses.
  3. The next day all participants undertook a “fear conditioning task,” an opportunity to test their new regulation training. Notably, some had been pre-stressed while others, a control group, encountered the task unstressed.
  4. The researchers confirmed fear arousal via skin conductance (sweat output) and fear response via certain enzymes and hormones in the saliva, generally accepted as markers of stress response.

The results showed that, when facing fear-inducing stimuli, those individuals who were not stressed did benefit from their new skills but those under stress saw no benefit from the cognitive regulation training. The researchers concluded: “Stress markedly impairs the cognitive regulation of emotion and highlights critical limitations of this technique to control affective responses under stress.”

Read the abstract (or the full study) here.