Theses Doctoral

Examining the Temporal Dynamics of Emotion Regulation via Cognitive Reappraisal

Denny, Bryan Thomas

Regulating emotions effectively is an indispensable human task, essential for maintaining proper health and well-being. While the investigation of emotions and strategies for regulating them has been a timeless and irresistible activity, pursued by artists and philosophers throughout human history, recent decades have given rise to the controlled examination of emotion and emotion regulation by psychologists in the laboratory. While substantial progress has been made in describing, categorizing, and understanding the effectiveness of multiple strategies to regulate emotion in the laboratory, and while several long-term cognitive treatment modalities incorporating numerous regulation strategies are in practice in clinical psychology, there has been substantially less basic investigation into two overarching questions that form the basis of this dissertation: (1) how we can effectively prepare to regulate emotion using specific strategies? and (2) how can emotion regulation efficacy using particular strategies can change over time through repeated training? In this dissertation, I will focus on one promising type of cognitive change-based emotion regulation strategy, that of cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal refers to reevaluating the meaning of an affective stimulus in a way that alters its emotional impact. In a series of four studies, I will address the two above questions using a combination of dependent measures, including questionnaire and task-based self-reported behavior, psychophysiology, and functional neuroimaging. In Study 1, I will provide evidence for the neural mechanisms that are conducive to reappraisal success and failure (measured via behavioral self-report) during anticipation of emotion regulation using whole-brain mediation and pattern expression analyses. Anticipatory activity in an area of rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) commonly associated with stimulus-independent mind-wandering was associated with poorer regulation outcomes, while anticipatory anterior insula activity implicated in internal affective integration was associated with better regulation outcomes. In Study 2, I will examine whether a short course of reappraisal training (in one of two reappraisal modalities: reinterpretation and psychological distancing, or a no-regulation control group) yields improvements in self-reported levels of negative affect during a laboratory task and in questionnaire reports of perceived stress in daily life. Results indicated that distancing shows promise as a trainable emotion regulation strategy, yielding decreasing reports of negative affect over time that were not attributable to habituation. Study 3 used the same experimental paradigm, adding psychophysiological data collection during the laboratory task (mean changes in heart rate). The combined results of Studies 2 and 3 indicated that while there was evidence of longitudinal decreases in negative affect for both distancing and reinterpretation, in distancing these effects were not attributable to habituation, and distancing was further uniquely associated with decreases in perceived stress in daily life among participants. Further, Study 3 indicated that mean changes in heart rate for distancing training yielded a pattern of increasing differentiability between regulated and unregulated trials over time, but this pattern was absent for reinterpretation training and the no-regulation control group. Finally, in Study 4, I examined the effects of a short course of reappraisal massed practice, where one engages in repeated distancing episodes using the same stimuli. Specifically, I examined the behavioral and neural sustainability of responses to stimuli for which one has engaged in massed distancing practice versus simple repeated viewing, versus stimuli regulated but not practiced, and versus novel negative stimuli. Results indicated that distancing massed practice resulted in a sustained adaptive response pattern in a key subcortical appraisal region (amygdala) over time relative to other conditions. Overall, these studies elucidate the temporal dynamics involved in reappraisal response patterns, including evidence for adaptive anticipation mindsets, as well as evidence for the effectiveness of short courses of reappraisal training, particularly using psychological distancing.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochsner, Kevin N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 1, 2014