Reducing the Effect of Stress on Executive Control
Stewart, Jennifer Marie
Previous research has shown that stress has a negative effect on executive control (Quinn & Joormann, 2015a, 2015b, 2020; Shields et al., 2016). The present study aimed to replicate the finding that a laboratory stressor reduces performance on an executive control task and test whether executive control under stress predicts subsequent depressive symptoms during a time of real-life stress. This study extended this earlier work by testing the efficacy of a brief, emotion regulation (ER) intervention for mitigating the effects of stress on executive control. The sample included 133 college students who were randomized to three conditions – High-Stress/Control Intervention, Low-Stress/Control Intervention, or High-Stress/ER Intervention. Participants attended two sessions one week apart. During Session 1, participants completed measures of mood and an executive control task, and received either the emotion regulation or control intervention (i.e., “healthy living skills”). In Session 2, participants in the high-stress condition underwent an acute stress induction (i.e., Trier Social Stress Test; TSST); the control stress condition involved a low stress version of the TSST. All participants completed a second executive control task after the stress induction. Mood questionnaires were again completed at the end of the semester during final exam week. Results showed that after the stress induction, participants in the High-Stress/Control Intervention reported significantly higher distress ratings than those in the Low-Stress/Control Intervention, but they did not differ on executive control performance. Participants in the High Stress/Control Intervention did not differ from those in the High-Stress/ER Intervention condition on either the distress ratings or executive control performance. Executive control under stress did not predict future depressive symptoms during finals week. Finally, positive and negative affect were significantly associated with executive control performance, but neither moderated the relation between stress and executive control. Several study limitations are noted and directions for future research are suggested.