Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Automatic Emotional Information Processing and the Cortisol Response to Acute Psychosocial Stress

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Automatic Emotional Information Processing and the Cortisol Response to Acute Psychosocial Stress

Article excerpt

Attentional shifting may represent a means of regulating the stress response. Previously, automatic processing of emotional information was predictive of subsequent cortisol levels during a repeated loss stressor (Ellenbogen, Schwartzman, Stewart, & Walker, 2006). The stress induction did not, however, elicit a substantive cortisol increase. Thus, we sought to replicate this finding using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a validated psychosocial stress induction. Seventy-nine students performed a modified spatial cuing task with supraliminal and masked pictorial stimuli during the TSST (n = 36) and a control condition (n = 43). The TSST elicited a greater cortisol response than did the control condition [F(1,76) = 4.6, p < .05]. Attentional shifting during trials with masked angry faces predicted cortisol change during the TSST (β = .76; t = 2.1, p < .05), but not during the control condition. These data suggest that early automatic emotional information processing is important in the regulation of the cortisol stress response, although the direction of effect is not known.

The efficiency and flexibility of early attentional processing is becoming increasingly important in understanding the pursuit of goals (Bargh, 2006) and mental disorders, such as major depression and anxiety disorders (Leppänen, 2006; Mogg & Bradley, 1998). Emotional biases in information processing and deficient inhibitory filtering may represent key deficits that provide the foundation for disordered thinking, cognitive distortions, memory biases, and high emotionality. These relationships are particularly salient with respect to emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression, where it is now established that there are robust attentional biases specific to these disorders (Ellenbogen & Schwartzman, 2009; Fales et al., 2008; Gotlib, Krasnoperova, Yue, & Joormann, 2004; Joormann, Siemer, & Gotlib, 2007; Mogg & Bradley, 2005; Sposari & Rapee, 2007). With some notable exceptions (Calvo & Avero, 2005; Leyman, De Raedt, Schacht, & Koster, 2007), attentional biases in anxious and depressed participants are largely attributable to difficulties in disengaging attention from threatening and sad stimuli, respectively, rather than to the initial orienting to these stimuli (Amir, Elias, Klumpp, & Przeworski, 2003; Ellenbogen & Schwartzman, 2009; Fox, Russo, Bowles, & Dutton, 2001; Koster, Crombez, Verschuere, Van Damme, & Wiersema, 2006; Koster, De Raedt, Goeleven, Franck, & Crombez, 2005; Salemink, van den Hout, & Kindt, 2007). Although this body of literature is of great importance, much of this work has been descriptive, and attempts to understand the functional consequences of attentional and memory biases in emotional disorders have been sparse. The general view is that attentional biases represent precursors to cognitive distortions (i.e., biased appraisals and attributions) and memory retrieval biases that underlie anxiety and depression (Ingram, Miranda, & Segal, 2006; Mogg & Bradley, 1998). However, attentional processing may underlie more general mechanisms of self-regulation and regulatory deficits that occur in psychopathology (Posner & Rothbart, 1998).

Current models of psychopathology identify deficits of emotion regulation as central to our understanding of different mental disorders (Campbell-Sills & Barlow, 2007; Kring & Werner, 2004; McLaughlin, Mennin, & Farach, 2007). In an influential theory of emotion regulation (Gross, 1998, 2002), the process of modulating emotional reactivity is hypothesized to occur through different techniques that can be categorized as "antecedent-" and "response-focused," depending on whether the strategy is applied prior to or during the generation of an emotion, Dickeror following the emotion. Among the antecedent-focused techniques, attentional allocation was put forth as an important means of emotion regulation. …

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