November 2017, Vol. 29, No. 11, Pages 1803-1816
Does Psychosocial Stress Impact Cognitive Reappraisal? Behavioral and Neural Evidence
Cognitive reappraisal (CR) is regarded as an effective emotion regulation strategy. Acute stress, however, is believed to impair the functioning of prefrontal-based neural systems, which could result in lessened effectiveness of CR under stress. This study tested the behavioral and neurobiological impact of acute stress on CR. While undergoing fMRI, adult participants (n = 54) passively viewed or used CR to regulate their response to negative and neutral pictures and provided ratings of their negative affect in response to each picture. Half of the participants experienced an fMRI-adapted acute psychosocial stress manipulation similar to the Trier Social Stress Test, and a control group received parallel manipulations without the stressful components. Relative to the control group, the stress group exhibited heightened stress as indexed by self-report, heart rate, and salivary cortisol throughout the scan. Contrary to our hypothesis, we found that reappraisal success was equivalent in the control and stress groups, as was electrodermal response to the pictures. Heart rate deceleration, a physiological response typically evoked by aversive pictures, was blunted in response to negative pictures and heightened in response to neutral pictures in the stress group. In the brain, we found weak evidence of stress-induced increases of reappraisal-related activity in parts of the PFC and left amygdala, but these relationships were statistically fragile. Together, these findings suggest that both the self-reported and neural effects of CR may be robust to at least moderate levels of stress, informing theoretical models of stress effects on cognition and emotion.