Does Cognitive Ability Suffer When We Stifle Our Emotions?

Everyone has experienced a situation during which he or she stifled emotions. Whether this happened as a result of something threatening, funny, or sad, the stifling or suppression of emotions is not uncommon. Take, for instance, when someone slips and falls. The first reaction may be to laugh at the funny event.

But, most often, people suppress their laughter because the person may be injured and to laugh would be considered an inappropriate response. Another form of emotional regulation that occurs when reacting to events is emotional reappraisal. This happens when someone re-evaluates their initial response and determines whether another response would be more acceptable and fitting for the situation at hand.

Emotional regulation has been shown to be central to various psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety. Diminished positive affect in particular is linked to depression, and could potentially be associated with emotional suppression. But how do these types of emotional regulatory processes affect cognitive ability? Catherine N.M. Ortner of the Thompson Rivers University in Canada wanted to see if suppression or reappraisal led to a decrease in cognitive abilities in a sample of 65 college students, hoping that if it did, the finding could be helpful to clinicians treating people with depression.

For her study, Ortner exposed the participants to emotional cues and instructed them to suppress, reappraise or allow their normal emotional responses. During the cue phase, Ortner had the participants view and listen to word and picture cues. She later tested their memory of the cues and found that the participants who reappraised their emotions during the task had the most difficulty remembering the verbal cues, but higher non-verbal memory than the other groups.

The emotionally neutral group recalled the cues with relative ease. “There was no effect of suppression on either verbal or nonverbal memory, but a trend towards poorer verbal memory than when viewing,” said Ortner. The results of this research show that cognitive resources are taxed when people reappraise their emotional reactions. This could potentially limit their ability to function in other domains. Clinicians who treat depression may want to focus on addressing reappraisal as one way of increasing cognitive functioning and overall quality of life.

Ortner, C.N.M., de Koning, M. (2013). Effects of Regulating Positive Emotions through Reappraisal and Suppression on Verbal and Non-Verbal Recognition Memory. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62750. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062750

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