How stress affects our cognitive emotion regulation

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Participants in the socially evaluated cold-pressor test are required to hold th
Participants in the socially evaluated cold-pressor test are required to hold their hand in a basin of ice-cold water for three minutes.
How do men and women regulate their emotions under stress? A new study in cognitive psychology that makes use of the socially evaluated cold-pressor test has answered this question.

The response to stress varies from person to person. "We’re trying to find out which factors may account for these different susceptibilities," explains Dr. Katja Langer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Cognitive Psychology. Research has shown that there are two main stress systems. "When we’re under stress, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol, for one thing. Plus, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and that means the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline. We feel our heart racing, notice how our blood pressure rises," elaborates Langer.

The Bochum-based researcher studies in what way stress affects our cognitive emotion regulation in the short term: that is, our ability to control our feelings through thought. "We’re interested in two cognitive strategies, reappraisal and distraction," points out Langer. How difficult do we find them when we’re stressed? In her latest study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, she shows that the impact of stress on cognitive emotion regulation differs between men and women. The Ruhr-Universität’s science magazine RUBIN reports.

Better emotion regulation in men

A total of 80 subjects, 40 men and 40 women, participated in Langer’s study. Katja Langer uses the so-called socially evaluated cold-pressor test to induce stress. This test requires participants to hold their hand for up to three minutes in circulating water that has a temperature of zero to two degrees Celsius. As they do so, they are monitored and filmed. The hypothesis that stress would impair emotion regulation performances wasn’t confirmed. The results suggest significant differences between women and men. In fact, this study showed that men were significantly better at distracting themselves under stress. "In men, stress seems to have led to a better emotion regulation. That left us absolutely speechless," concludes Langer. In women, by contrast, the results tended to point in the other direction: the stress response here was associated with poorer emotion regulation.

Opposing stress effects

The researcher attributes the differences in part to the timing of the study and in part to hormonal differences. "Previous studies have already shown that cortisol is released in greater amounts after about 20 minutes. Whereas activation of the sympathetic nervous system happens within seconds of stress induction, as an immediate response to the cold water. Cortisol is released with a time delay in response to the unpleasant monitoring situation," Langer explains.

Sex hormones and stress

The effects of cortisol on emotion regulation thus appear to vary, depending on gender. In men, cortisol leads to a better emotion regulation. In women, the impairment in emotion regulation via the sympathetic nervous system is probably more pronounced. In them, cortisol seems to have no or at least less beneficial effects on their ability to regulate. This result could be explained by the fact that women release less cortisol and that the sympathetic activation of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the brain is stronger. Langer hopes to confirm these assumptions in follow-up studies.

Katja Langer, Valerie L. Jentsch, Oliver T. Wolf: Rapid effects of acute stress on cognitive emotion regulation, in: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 151, 2023, DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2023.106054

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