Research Laboratory Examination of Emotion-Related Mechanisms

Emotion Dysregulation in Anxiety and Mood Disorders: an Affect Science Perspective

Whether it is the rising sense of dread as a heart beats furiously and unexpectedly, the vivid memory of a painful event that occurred long ago but is not easily forgotten, or the sharp craving of a substance that seems so certain to quickly take away pain or ensure pleasure, the experiences of adults suffering with psychopathology are replete with emotions. However, despite periodic calls for attention, only relatively recently has the field of clinical psychology begun to systematically incorporate the basic science of emotions into its various frameworks for psychopathology and psychotherapeutic intervention.

An affect science perspective stresses a number of emotion characteristics that are relevant to adult psychopathology and its treatment. First, although not always productive, emotions are signals for both reward- and security-based motivations in service of survival adaptation or societal function. Second, emotions are defined by multiple interacting systems, which operate through both convergent and divergent means. Third, these emotion systems mutually regulate each other in order to maintain stability through changing environmental contexts. This regulatory function of emotions has been shown to be important to well being and to the promotion of mental health. In contrast, disorder and dysfunction may represent perturbations to the flexible balancing of these emotional response systems.

Dr. Douglas Mennin has focused his research program on utilizing this affect science perspective to understand and treat anxiety and mood disorders, particularly in their most complex forms - high levels of comorbidity, unyielding course, poor life satisfaction, refractory response to treatment, with the aim of expanding our knowledge of their etiology, development and maintenance across the lifespan. While Dr. Mennin is interested in studying many forms of complex emotional disorders, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD; characterized by chronic worry and physical tension) and GAD with co-occurring major depression (MDD) most clearly fit the goals of his research program. He developed and empirically evaluated a theoretical model of the etiology and maintenance of GAD and MDD that implicates a central role for emotion regulation dysfunction. Because approximately one-third to one-half of individuals will remain symptomatic even after treatment, he and his collaborator, Dr. David Fresco at Kent State University, have worked to develop an emotion regulation perspective on treatment of these disorders and have translated these ideas into an approach called Emotion Regulation Therapy (ERT), currently in pilot studies.

The READ lab has been working to extend this research through experimental and ecological investigations of subjective and physiological emotional responses. Ongoing projects aim to delineate the multi-componential (subjective, physiological, expressive) processes that contribute to emotion reactivity and dysregulation in in chronic anxiety and co-occurring depression. Other projects involve examination of bio-behavioral mechanisms of reactivity and dysregulation to determine if their reduction early in treatment mediates long term symptomatic and functional outcome as a result of ERT.

For more information on ongoing projects at the READ Lab, please click here.

To learn more about ERT, please visit EmotionRegulationTherapy.com

To read more about Dr. Mennin, please visit NYCStressAnxiety.com or click here.