Emotional Regulation, Anxiety and Cognition

In Chapter 1 we reviewed how the body can be used as a tool for emotional regulation. In this chapter we discuss how thinking and cognition affect emotional regulation. The emotion of anxiety will be the main focus of discussion.

Key Points

  • Focusing more on what we can control and less on what we cannot control reduces anxiety.
  • Planning a response to a stressful situation reduces the anxiety that results from it.
  • Becoming aware of anxiety or any other negative emotion reduces its magnitude.
  • Gratitude reduces symptoms of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

Some Theory...

The "Hot" and the "Cool" Systems in the Brain

  • The "hot" system in the brain (the limbic system) is activated when we detect threat and when we perceive a desired object. The "hot" system pushes us to act impulsively: run away from threat, eat the delicious chocolate brownie despite our decision to reduce our sugar intake.
  • The "cool" system in the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is activated when we are planning, problem solving and inhibiting our impulsive reactions. The "cool" system induces us to act rationally: assessing the seriousness of the threat before running away, thinking about the consequences of eating the brownie before indulging in it.
  • When the "hot" system is overactivated the "cool" system's activity is reduced, and vice versa. Consequently, in order to soothe the 'hot' system and reduce its activity when we are experiencing negative emotions, the 'cool' system must be activated.

Regulating Anxiety by Focusing on What We Can Control

  • Both fear and anxiety involve the same stress reactions, but while fear is a response to actual danger, anxiety is a response to potential/possible danger (Korb, 2015). When we think about the future, we are likely to experience worry which feeds anxiety. However, according to Korb (2015), if we focus more on elements of the future that we can control and less on elements that are beyond our control, anxiety is reduced. Analyzing the future into elements that we can control and elements that we cannot control activates the "cool" system in the brain and consequently soothes the "hot" system. Korb's (2015) insights intersect with the insights of philosopher Epictetus
  • Happiness is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control
    Epictetus

Regulating Anxiety by planning responses to threatening situations

  • According to Korb (2015), anxiety is a byproduct of a three step process, which he calls the ABC of anxiety.
    • A, Alarm: When we are in a threatening situation or when we worry about the future, an alarm is generated by our limbic system.
    • B, Belief: Once we notice the alarm, we assess how 'real' the threat is. The more 'real' the threat is believed to be, the more anxiety is experienced. The more anxious we are, the more our "hot" system is overactive.
    • C, Coping: Coping with anxiety can take adaptive forms, like taking a deep breath, or maladaptive forms, like panicking or indulging in eating.
  • While the Alarm (A) phase is preconscious and is often beyond our control, the phases that follow are conscious and can either heighten anxiety or reduce it.
  • Planning a response to the situation that we are worried about reduces anxiety. Planning activate the "cool" system and consequently soothes the "hot" system where anxiety is generated.
  • You cannot control noticing the 'alarm' in the first place, but you can reduce its negative impact.
    Alex Korb in The Upward Spiral

Regulating Anxiety through Awareness

  • According to Korb (2015), awareness activates different brain circuits than the ones activated by emotions. Therefore, awareness can reduce the impact of a negative emotion.
  • In the "Putting Feelings into Words" study conducted by Lieberman and his colleagues (2007), a group of subjects were shown pictures of emotional facial expressions. When they saw the images, their amygdala ("hot" system) was activated. However, when subjects were asked to name the emotions, their prefrontal cortex ("cool" system) was activated and it reduced the reactivity of the amygdala. Link to the study
  • Based on the study of Lieberman et al. (2007), Korb (2015) recommends that we use awareness to regulate our own emotions.
  • Becoming aware of your emotional state activates the prefrontal cortex and allows it to suppress the amygdala.
    Alex Korb in The Upward Spiral

Regulating Anxiety and Negative Mood through Gratitude

  • Gratitude induces us to focus on the things that we are grateful for and distracts us from the things that we worry about.
  • Ng and Wong (2013) found that gratitude, when coupled with good sleep, can reduce symptoms of anxiety. They also found that gratitude reduced symptoms of depression. Link to the study
  • Kleiman et al. (2013) found that gratitude reduced suicidal thoughts. Link to the study
  • Korb (2015) argues that the practice of gratitude increases our emotional intelligence, the more we practice gratitude, the easier it becomes to notice things that we should be grateful for.
  • It's not finding gratitude that matters most; it's remembering to look in the first place
    Alex Korb in The Upward Spiral

Practical Suggestions

  • Design activities that allow students to regularly identify their emotions, this will help them activate their prefrontal cortex and soothe the amygdala. One of the programs created for this purpose is the "zones of regulation" (Link to the program).

  • Design activities where students are taught to differentiate between things that they can control and things that they cannot control.

  • When students show signs of worry and anxiety ask them about their worries and help them evaluate the extent to which their worries are likely to happen. Also, help them come up with plans to the situations that they are worried about, planning activates the prefrontal cortex and consequently soothes the amygdala.

  • Ask students to write thank you letters.

  • Organize gratitude circles where each student shares something that she or he is grateful for. Ensure the classroom environment is safe enough for students to share their emotions.

Review

References

Korb, A. (2015). The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. New Harbinger Publications.