The Cascade Effect of Emotional Stress

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

It’s time to put on our nerdy hats and think about a fascinating study I read about this morning. It appeared in a recent volume of the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, and was written by the inquisitive group I list at the end of this post.

The study’s title is about as enticing as the stock market report (my apologies to those who enjoy reading about the Dow Jones, NASDAQ, and S & P 500):


Stress Shifts Brain Activation towards Ventral “Affective” Areas during Emotional Distraction

Huh? I know – especially if you’re reading this before having your morning coffee. But bear with me. This is important stuff.

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In the study, a group of men were distracted while performing a working memory test (in a nutshell, working memory is something we use daily and involves holding information long enough to reason, make decisions, and perform tasks efficiently). Some men were distracted by a neutral event, while others were distracted by an event meant to evoke emotional stress.

These poor guys had to do this inside an MRI scanner, but it was well worth it (I don’t know if they’d agree, but this is my humble opinion). Not only did men who were emotionally distracted perform more slowly on the working memory test; their MRI scans showed that brain activations were more prominent in ventral “affective” areas of the brain, or parts of the brain that deal with emotions. On the contrary, men who were neutrally distracted performed the working memory test faster and brain activations were more concentrated in dorsal “executive” areas of the brain, or parts of the brain that deal with getting things done.

The researchers concluded that emotional stress forces the brain to shift priority from executive functioning (getting things done) to emotional processing at the cost of working memory performance.

Can you relate to this? I sure can. When I’m emotionally at peace, I can be ultra-productive. But when something is causing emotional stress (and all too often that “something” is my own thinking), it can take me hours to complete what would normally take me less than one.

Now think about this study in the context of multidimensional wellness. In past blog posts, I’ve written about several kinds of wellness such as vocational, physical, environmental, social, intellectual, spiritual, and yes, emotional. Can you see how emotional stress impacts more than just emotional wellness?

This study suggests that when we are not emotionally well, it impacts our productivity. For many of us, that affects job performance and success. It can also impact our intellectual health, making it difficult to focus on reading or other types of learning. When we feel unproductive and unfocused, that can influence our physical well-being by creating tightness in the chest or headaches. And when we feel that way, we certainly don’t feel very social, do we?

I’m not trying to catastrophize here. I’m trying to point out that these dimensions of wellness are interdependent. When one dimension is off it can act as a cascade in how it affects other dimensions. In my experience, emotional wellness is often the instigator of the cascade.

But this study is not all doom and gloom. What I gleaned from it is that now we have concrete evidence that when we consciously or unconsciously shift priorities, our brain functioning shifts, too.

And that means that in most cases, we can shift it back.

The next time you find yourself emotionally distracted, try to consciously decide to redirect yourself back to the task at hand. If it’s an emotional issue that needs further attention, by all means set aside time to process it when your task is done. You could schedule a walk or a journaling session later in the day. But for that moment, tell yourself that you have power over the emotional distraction and that you choose to exercise your working memory to its fullest capacity.

Let me know how it goes.


Oei, N. Y. L., Veer, I. M., Wolf, O. T., Spinhoven, P., Rombouts, S. A. R. B., & Elzinga, B. M. (2012). Stress shifts brain activation towards ventral “affective” areas during emotional distraction. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(4), 403-412.

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