For people with anxiety or fear, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a useful tool to help keep those emotions under control. But a new study suggests that stress could interfere with the success of these types of cognitive strategies.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that stress might undercut the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Specifically, researchers from New York University, Stanford University, Hunter College and SUNY Downstate College of Medicine found that when exposed to stress, study participants trained to employ cognitive techniques in response to fears still experienced it when exposed to fear triggers. Meanwhile, people not exposed to stress didn't experience as high of levels of fear, suggesting they were able to successfully employ the cognitive techniques.
"We have long suspected that stress can impair our ability to control our emotions, but this is the first study to document how even mild stress can undercut therapies designed to keep our emotions in check," study researcher Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science at NYU, said in a statement. "In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you're stressed."
For the study, researchers first had participants go through "fear conditioning," where they were conditioned to experience fear in response to viewing images of snakes or spiders. Researchers accomplished this by applying a mild shock to the wrists of the study participants in response to some of the photos.
Then, the researchers taught the study participants strategies (similar to those used in cognitive behavioral therapy) to help reduce those fears they were conditioned to feel.
On day two of the experiment, researchers split the participants up into two groups: one was a "stress group" -- where they had to put their hands in icy water for three minutes to prompt a stress response -- and the other was a "control group" -- where they put their hands in mildly warm water, and no stress response was provoked. To gauge levels of stress from this part of the experiment, researchers took measures of the study participants' cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Shortly thereafter, the researchers had all the study participants look again at the images of snakes or spiders. They found that those who were in the stress group experienced no reductions in fear when looking at these images, which suggests the stress undermined their ability to employ the anti-fear strategies they learned the day prior. Meanwhile, those in the control group did experience a reduction in fear.
While some stress is not a bad thing -- and is in fact natural -- chronic stress and the way we react to stress can affect our health. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science showed that people who have negative emotions from everyday stressors are more likely to develop depression or anxiety later on. And another study, in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, showed that anxiety about stress could raise the risk of chronic health conditions 10 years down the road.
For more surprising effects of stress, click through the slideshow: