Fighting with a loved one usually makes you feel terrible. And because you feel so bad, you may end up making bad choices.
Often a partner may turn to alcohol to self-regulate their emotional upheaval — often to little avail.
If we are lucky, the mini-crisis will resolve with minimal damage. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
A new study investigates how people can control their emotional reactions and mitigate the use of alcohol as a tonic.
The review, published in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) is a brain region that may help people to control their emotional reactions to negative facial expressions from their romantic partners.
Christine Hooker and her colleagues recruited healthy, adult participants in committed relationships. The research subjects viewed positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions of their partners during a brain scan.
In an online daily diary, participants reported conflict occurrence, level of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
They found that LPFC activity in response to the laboratory-based affective challenge predicted self-regulation after an interpersonal conflict in daily life. When there was no interpersonal conflict, LPFC activity was not related to mood or behavior the next day.
However, when an interpersonal conflict did occur, LPFC activity predicted mood and behavior the next day, such that lower activity was related to higher levels of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
The study findings suggest that low LPFC function may be a risk factor for mood and behavioral problems after a stressful interpersonal event.
The constructive management of negative emotional states that emerge inevitably within romantic relationships can be a critical facet of coping with the world. These relationships frequently serve as emotional havens from the stresses of the working world.
Yet these relationships also may augment rather than reduce life stress. When that happens, problematic behaviors such as overeating and substance abuse may increase.
Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented on the importance of these findings:
“When activated in the context of intense emotion, it appears that the LPFC helps us to manage the intensity of negative emotions that emerge in social relationships. When this brain region does not efficiently activate or when the intensity of the conflict is very high, people need to learn behavioral strategies to cope with the emotional response. For some people this strategy can be as simple as counting to 10 before doing something that they might regret later.”
This study raises an important question. How can clinicians enhance the function of the LPFC when its function is compromised? Cognitive and behavioral strategies may be important treatment components.
As Dr. Hooker explained, their findings “suggest that imaging can provide potentially useful information about who may be vulnerable to mood and behavioral problems after a stressful event. We hope that future research will build on this idea and explore ways that imaging can be used to inform people about their emotional vulnerabilities.”