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Study Finds Mild Stress Can Lead to Difficulty in Controlling Emotions

Update Date: Aug 26, 2013 03:06 PM EDT

Although there are several ways of reducing one's stress level, stress is an inevitable factor that people have to deal with everyday. Due to the fact that people experience different levels of stress each day, studying how this aspect of life affects physical and mental health is important. Several studies have concluded that different levels and types of stress can either be harmful or beneficial depending greatly on how people cope with it. In a new study, neuroscientists from New York University found that even mild stress can make it difficult to control one's emotions.

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

For this study, the researchers conducted a two-day experiment. On the first day, the researchers used the fear conditioning technique to instill a fear of snakes in the participants. The technique involved pictures of snake or spiders that would sometimes be accompanied with a shock to the wrist. The researchers measured fear by monitoring physiological arousal and self-reports. For the participants who received the shocks and developed a fear, the researchers taught them cognitive methods to lower their fears. These methods were similar to those prescribed by a therapist, which all fall under cognitive-behavioral therapy.

After the first day, the participants returned and were divided into two groups called the stress group and the control group. In the first group, the researchers submerged the participants' hands in icy cold water for three minutes in order to create mild stress. The researchers measured stress by looking at salivary cortisol levels. In the control group, the participants placed their hands in mildly warm water.

The researchers discovered that in the stress group, the salivary cortisol levels increased. The control group did not experience any increases in salivary cortisol levels. The researchers then tested the participant's fear response. They found that the participants in the control group that were fearful of snakes or spiders had a reduction in their fear response. The participants who were scared of snakes or spiders in the stress group, however, had no reduction in fear at all.

"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," added Candace Raio, a doctoral student in NYU's Department of Psychology 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."

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The press release for this study can be found here.

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