Just A Spoonful of Stress Hurts the Medicine



A brand new study has been completed by a team of neuro-scientists at New York University with findings that point to the limits clinical techniques have over helping people manage their emotions even under the influence of mild stress. The study’s findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences document how even mild stress can undermine therapies designed to keep emotions in check.

“In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed,” says Elizabeth Phelps, the study’s senior author and a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science.

The study’s main intent was to determine whether cognitive restructuring techniques, such as encouraging patients to change their thinking or approach toward a situation in order to change their emotional response, would hold up in the real world where everyday stress occurs.

If you would like to know particular details of the study, please write me personally and I will gladly provide you with them, but the main points are that the study was designed as a two-day experiment in which participants were taught cognitive strategies, collectively titled cognitive-behavioral therapy to use to decrease conditioned fear. They were exposed to the fear conditioning on the first day. They were also taught strategies for combating the fear that was produced on that first day.

On day two they were put in a situation where they were expected to rely on the fear-combatting-strategies in the ‘real world situation” they were placed in, AFTER having been exposed to a mild level of stress.

The participants in the ‘stress group’ were not able to reproduce or use the techniques to combat fear they had been taught the previous day. The ‘control group’ the participants who were not subjected to a mild level of stress, on the other hand, employed the techniques they were taught.



The study linked to findings that show cognitive techniques used to control fear rely on regions of the pre-frontal cortex that have been proven to be functionally impaired by mild stress. This is what the study’s authors believe is the cause of the inability to learn to employ the fear decreasing techniques. But do not lose hope, because with practice or after longer intervals of cognitive training, the strategies may become more habitual and less sensitive to the effects of stress, according to the authors.

I am rephrasing here, but it seems that for some people, it will most likely never be a rational, natural type of reaction to fear and anxiety. These people will have to work harder and longer to turn these methods into habits in order for them to be effective for them. But, it can be done and the more studies that are funded to research emotion study, the more readily methods will be found to work with a variety of people in more individual and accurate ways that work best for them.

Judy is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked extensively as a counselor with children, adolescents, couples and families. Judy’s professional experience in the mental health field along with her love of writing, provide insight into real-life experiences and relationships. Her fresh voice and down-to-earth approach to living a happier, more meaningful life are easy to understand and just as easy to start implementing right away for positive results!

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Even Mild Stress Can Make It Difficult to Control Your Emotions « Health and Medical News and Resources

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