Cognitive emotion regulation withstands the stress test: An fMRI study on the effect of acute stress on distraction and reappraisal

Neuropsychologia. 2021 Jul 16:157:107876. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2021.107876. Epub 2021 Apr 28.


Cognitive emotion regulation is a key mechanism for the maintenance of mental health, but may fail, when individuals are exposed to acute stress. To date, it is not well understood whether and to what extent acute stress effects contribute to impairments in emotion regulation capacities as the sparse existing studies have yielded heterogeneous results, indicating that stress timing might be a crucial factor. In the present study, 81 healthy participants underwent either an acute stress task (ScanSTRESS-C; n = 40) or a control condition (n = 41) while lying in the MRI scanner. In the subsequent Cognitive Emotion Regulation Task (CERT), participants were confronted with neutral or negative pictures and instructed to either view them, or regulate their upcoming emotions using either distraction or reappraisal. Subjective ratings of affective state as well as functional brain imaging data served to indicate emotion regulation. The results showed a successful stress manipulation as indicated by group differences in subjective wellbeing, saliva cortisol concentrations, heart rate, and functional brain activity in regions implicated in stress processing. With respect to emotion regulation, CERT data revealed a significant regulation effect at the neural and behavioral level (less negative emotional ratings after reappraisal and distraction trials compared to view trials) in both groups. However, no significant group differences were observed, neither in BOLD responses to the CERT, nor in behavioral ratings. Contrary to previous studies, our study did not reveal further evidence of stress-related effects on emotion regulation, potentially being related to differences between studies in experimental setting, timing, and procedures. This study therefore underlines the need of future studies that disentangle the complex interplay of stress and emotion regulation and identify different factors influencing their bidirectional relationship.

Keywords: Acute stress; Distraction; Emotion regulation; Reappraisal; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Emotional Regulation*
  • Emotions
  • Exercise Test
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging