Cognitive reappraisal is a widely-used method to improve ones emotional control. It involves the recognition of negative thought patterns, and gradually changing them to more effective patterns. However, it seems that the cognitive load during reappraisal, rather than the the reappraisal itself, regulates our emotions. This has been shown by a recently published study, where Radboudumc and Donders Institute researchers investigated the role of executive control in emotion regulation. Their results are published in Human Brain Mapping.
Successful regulation of our emotions can be established by reappraising a threatening situation into something less aversive. It is thought that emotion regulation is established by activation of brain regions involved in executive control, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Activation of this region, in turn, leads to the inhibition of an almond-shaped brain structure, called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing our emotions. The involvement of the amygdala is critical in the initial detection of potential threat, and its inhibition could therefore underlie the emotion regulatory outcome.
Interestingly, many cognitively demanding tasks such as making math calculations or playing a game of Tetris also activate these executive control regions of the brain. Therefore, a more parsimonious explanation for the amygdala inhibition found during cognitive reappraisal, is that it is driven by the cognitively demanding nature of reappraisal and not per se by the act of the reappraisal itself.
Using a meta-analytic approach, Linda de Voogd and Erno Hermans found that a typical working memory task can systematically downregulate the amygdala similar to cognitive reappraisal. Therefore, it may be possible to regulate our emotions simply by performing a cognitively demanding task. This can include making math calculations or playing a game of Tetris. If this is indeed the mechanism behind the amygdala inhibition, it may be possible to applying cognitively demanding tasks in clinical settings as an alternative emotion regulation strategy.
de Voogd, L. D. and Hermans E. J. Meta-analytic evidence for downregulation of the amygdala during working memory maintenance. Human Brain Mapping. 2022 Mar;1-21. DOI: 10.1002/hbm.25828. Epub 2022 Mar 29.
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