Executive Function Contributions to Emotion Regulation in the Relationship Between Stress and Psychopathology in Emerging Adulthood




Cochrane, Melanie

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Prevailing theories of emotion regulation (ER) focus on the role of various aspects of cognition for successful regulation of one’s emotions. In particular, research suggests that executive functions (EF) may play an important role in contributing to successful ER. Emerging adulthood can be a time of high levels of perceived stress associated with changing developmental roles, which can be a risk factor for psychopathology (e.g., depression, anxiety). Emerging adulthood is also a time during which EF comes to maturation both behaviorally and biologically. This prolonged period of development associated with EF and ER maturity may represent an increased period of vulnerability in young adults, and deficits in EF may pose a significant risk for emotion dysregulation and future psychopathology. This study aimed to investigate whether EFs played a role in ER for emerging adults. More specifically, this study examined whether EFs (including, working memory, attentional control, and inhibitory control) moderated the indirect effect of ER in the relationship between stress and psychopathology in the context of emerging adulthood. A sample of 75 undergraduate students at the University of Victoria was recruited. Participants self reported perceived levels of stress and psychopathology symptoms. Participants also completed a computerized ER task where they viewed aversive pictures and sentences on a computer screen and explicitly applied an ER strategy to reduce their negative emotions when viewing the stimuli. Tests of EF including the Go/No-Go, Number-Letter and N-Back task were also completed. Results revealed that moderated mediation did not hold for this sample. However, working memory, attentional control, and inhibitory control moderated the relationship between ER and psychopathology. Specifically, low working memory and attentional control, and high inhibitory control moderated the relationship between cognitive reappraisal and psychopathology. For this same relationship of cognitive reappraisal to psychopathology, faster engagement in response inhibition (i.e., faster reaction times) was trending toward significant levels of psychopathology symptoms. For expressive suppression, the relationship to psychopathology was moderated by inhibitory control. ER did not mediate the relationship between stress and psychopathology symptoms across the entire sample. The results illuminate the ways in which EFs contribute to ER in the context of emerging adulthood. Implications for promoting successful ER and informing therapeutic techniques used with this critical population are discussed.



Emotion Regulation, Executive Functions, Stress, Emerging Adulthood, Psychopathology