Controlling Your Emotions
The role of executive function in emotion regulation.
Posted October 2, 2017
Human beings are innately goal-directed. Experience and prospection lead us to form goals that would realize states of the world that we have positively or negatively evaluated, and we are motivated to behave in ways that either promote or preclude these states, respectively. Whatever our aims, it is commonplace for desires to be left unsatisfied: Most people, most of the time, fail at much of what they do—at least during initial attempts to solve a given problem. Our fallibility as human beings, as well as states of affairs over which we have no control, ensures that actions and events will occur in our lives that are goal incongruent. The mind interacts with our experience of events that are or are not in line with our personal goals to engender emotion (Scherer, Schorr, & Johnstone, 2010).
Often, negative emotions are themselves evaluated as undesirable—anxiety, anger, guilt, and so forth—and we aim to regulate these emotions, to change their trajectory or expression—to feel concerned instead of anxious, to feel annoyed instead of angry, or to feel happy instead of content (Gross, 2014). Although there are a number of self-initiated strategies by which to regulate emotion that people can employ, the general deployment of any strategy will largely depend on the conscious control of cognitive processes, that is, on executive function; executive function refers to the deliberate effort with which the brain actively modulates information processing. The chief aim of this article is to provide a scientific account of the ability of people to change their emotional responding in their everyday lives.
It is perhaps best to first understand the process of emotion generation before the processes underpinning emotion regulation and the executive functions that facilitate it. In common with almost all cognitive neuroscientific approaches to emotion generation is the idea that emotions are the output of a particular sequence of processing. Namely, when events occur in the environment (or internally, such as imagined situations), attention is directed to these situations for further processing, and then people ‘appraise’ the meaning of these situations in light of their personal goals, generating responses that are not only emotional but also behavioral, physiological, and even cognitive. For example, if the belief is held that other people must act fairly, then it is probable that when one is perceivably treated otherwise, attentional processes will become engaged and an appraisal will be made about the event (“That person should not have done that to me,”) which can engender various responses: heart-rate might increase (physiological), anger might be felt (emotion), and the transgressor might be verbally confronted (behavioral). This emotion-generative process is captured in the contemporary ‘modal model of emotion’ (see Gross, 2014). In short, cognitive processes mediate the relationship between stimulus and response.
The regulation of emotion refers to the modification of the frequency, intensity, duration, or type of an emotional response (Braunstein, Gross & Ochsner, 2017). People can use different regulation strategies, and these strategies can target different facets of the emotion-generative process. For example, one regulation strategy is to distract one’s self from affective stimuli by using attention to deselect aspects of the environment or one’s thoughts. Another, and far more effective, a regulation strategy is to reappraise the meaning of goal-(in)congruent situations. Thus, emotion regulation strategies act to increase or decrease positive or negative emotion.
Please view the video below to learn more about emotion regulation, including its neural basis:
Emotions are seldom regulated without the help of executive function: that is, without the brain controlling certain aspects of information processing. At the anatomical level, an executive function can be largely understood in terms of the frontal lobe biasing brain activation in favor of goal-relevant tasks and, conversely, inhibiting processing that is not relevant (Miller & Cohen, 2001). Recent cognitive neuroscientific research on the role of executive function in emotion regulation has supported the idea that regulation strategies vary in the degree to which they rely on executive resources (Braunstein et al., 2017). A corollary of different executive demands is that these strategies will vary—dimensionally and categorically—regarding the brain regions they recruit; several meta-analyses have implicated a number of regions (e.g., Buhle et al., 2014; Messina, Bianco, Sambin, & Viviani, 2015). When emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal are engaged, the frontal lobe—particularly the prefrontal cortex—downregulates emotion-related regions such as the amygdala by inhibiting neural activity to these regions (Ochsner et al., 2005).
However, the mechanisms by which emotion is controlled at the level of information processing are poorly understood; for instance, few studies have examined the role of executive systems for prospection, planning, strategic monitoring, problem-solving, error detection, and so forth on actuating regulation strategies such as reappraisal. A challenge of future research in this area will be to explain emotion regulation strategies in terms of information processing systems and to empirically fractionate them into their respective subsystems (see Shallice & Burgess, 2002, for example of fractionation of the executive system).
In sum, the emotional response to a given situation will differ between and within individuals, but in so far as you have the object to manage your response, you will have available to you strategies that can, for example, decrease negative emotion. One effective strategy is to appraise the goal-incongruent event differently (reappraisal). For example, regarding the aforementioned situation in which one is treated unfairly, one could reappraise the initial appraisal from “That person should not have done that to me” to “Although this person did something that was unfair to me, there is no reason why people must act otherwise, that is, in ways that are always in line with my goals; I don’t own the universe.” Research in cognitive neuroscience has been investigating the executive-related brain regions supporting regulation strategies, but much theoretical and empirical progress is still needed to improve our understanding of the role of executive function in emotion regulation.
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Braunstein, L M., Gross, J. J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2017). Explicit and implicit emotion regulation A multi-level framework. Journal of Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 0(0), 1–13. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx096
Gross, J. J. (2014). Handbook of emotion regulation (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Messina, I., Bianco, S., Sambin, M., & Viviani, R. (2015). Executive and semantic processes in reappraisal of negative stimuli: Insights from a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00956
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Ochsner, K. N., Gross, J. J., Gross, J. J., Gross, J. J., Munoz, R. F., Davidson, R. J., …(2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 242–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2005.03.010
Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion: Theory, methods, research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shallice, T., & Burgess, P. (2002). Fractionation of the supervisory system. In D. T. Stuss & R. T. Knight. (Eds.). Principles of frontal lobe function. Principles of frontal lobe function. New York, NY US: Oxford University Press.