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Developmental Psychology PhD Student


Serenity intervenes between personality and emotion regulation

Broadly, I study emotion regulation in children and young adults, and try to identify intervening traits that may be cultivated to enhance effective emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation is the process of changing the duration, intensity, impact, or expression of emotions. This could be stopping yourself from acting out when you are angry, soothing yourself when you are sad, or by breathing deeply to calm your nerves. In my current research I address the relation between serenity and behavioral emotion regulation (BER; altering the physical expression of emotions). Serenity is a positive emotion related to calmness, peacefulness, and relaxedness. Positive emotions have been shown to lead to adaptive functioning by broadening cognition, speeding physiological recovery from stress, increasing flexible thinking patterns, and by aiding in the assimilation of new learning—all aspects that may increase effective emotion regulation abilities. In my current project, I evaluate serenity level as a potential intervening factor that may enhance BER.

Certain personality constructs on their own predict poorer BER, such as those related to depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychopathology. While these personality tendencies may not be easily intervened upon, serenity may alter the impact that these personality constructs would otherwise have on BER. By evaluating serenity’s impact on the existing relation between a personality construct and BER, I can determine for whom an increase in serenity may lead to more adaptive behavioral emotion regulation. My findings support my hypothesis that higher levels of serenity facilitate better BER functioning despite the impact of initial personality constructs that tend to impede BER. These findings are important as they show that though an individual’s personality bias is not easily intervened upon, serenity is a trait that can be enhanced in hopes of increasing adaptive behavioral emotion regulation.


Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention.

Abstract: Research suggests that the positive affect system may be an important yet underexplored treatment target in anxiety and depression. Existing interventions primarily target the negative affect system, yielding modest effects on measures of positive emotions and associated outcomes (e.g., psychological well-being). The objective of the present pilot study was to evaluate the efficacy of a new transdiagnostic positive activity intervention (PAI) for anxiety and depression.Twenty-nine treatment-seeking individuals presenting with clinically impairing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression were randomly allocated to a 10-session protocol comprised of PAIs previously shown in nonclinical samples to improve positive thinking, emotions, and behaviors (e.g., gratitude, acts of kindness, optimism; n = 16) or a waitlist (WL) condition (n = 13). Participants were assessed at pre- and posttreatment, as well as 3- and 6-month follow-up, on measures of positive and negative affect, symptoms, and psychological well-being. ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02330627 RESULTS: The PAI group displayed significantly larger improvements in positive affect and psychological well-being from pre- to posttreatment compared to WL. Posttreatment and follow-up scores in the PAI group were comparable to general population norms. The PAI regimen also resulted in significantly larger reductions in negative affect, as well as anxiety and depression symptoms, compared to WL. Improvements across all outcomes were large in magnitude and maintained over a 6-month follow-up period.Targeting the positive affect system through a multicomponent PAI regimen may be beneficial for generating improvements in positive emotions and well-being, as well as reducing negative affect and symptoms, in individuals with clinically impairing anxiety or depression.

Pub.: 07 Jan '17, Pinned: 19 Aug '17

The proximal experience of gratitude.

Abstract: Although a great deal of research has tested the longitudinal effects of regularly practicing gratitude, much less attention has been paid to the emotional landscape directly following engagement in gratitude exercises. In three studies, we explored the array of discrete emotions people experience after being prompted to express or recall gratitude. In Studies 1 and 2, two different gratitude exercises produced not only greater feelings of gratitude relative to two positive emotion control conditions (i.e., recalling relief), but also higher levels of other socially relevant states like elevation, connectedness, and indebtedness. In a third study, conducted in both the U.S. and S. Korea, we compared a gratitude exercise to another positive emotion elicitation (i.e., recalling a kind act) and to a neutral task, and again found that the gratitude exercise prompted greater gratitude, elevation, indebtedness, and guilt, but no more embarrassment or shame, than the two comparison conditions. Additionally, in all three studies, emodiversity and cluster analyses revealed that gratitude exercises led to the simultaneous experience of both pleasant and unpleasant socially-relevant states. In sum, although it may seem obvious that gratitude exercises would evoke grateful, positive states, a meta-analysis of our three studies revealed that gratitude exercises actually elicit a mixed emotional experience-one that simultaneously leads individuals to feel uplifted and indebted.

Pub.: 08 Jul '17, Pinned: 19 Aug '17

Accounting for intrusive thoughts in PTSD: Contributions of cognitive control and deliberate regulation strategies.

Abstract: Persistent, trauma-related intrusive thoughts are common in individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Automatic aspects of cognitive functioning (including executive functioning) and maladaptive deliberate attempts at cognitive regulation have been proposed as individual difference factors that may perpetuate intrusive thoughts. The current study sought to examine the joint contribution of these two factors on intrusive thoughts in PTSD.Forty-two women with PTSD completed an executive functioning assessment followed by a thought suppression task. Intrusive thoughts (frequency and duration), as well as participants' use of specific cognitive regulation strategies (avoidance-based thought regulation strategies; TRS), were measured during the task. Hierarchical linear regression was used to examine the interaction of executive functioning and TRS on intrusive thoughts.Greater use of TRS was associated with greater intrusive thought persistence for those with low executive functioning, but not those with high executive functioning.Data was collected cross-sectionally and the laboratory thought suppression task may not correspond to naturalistic thought regulation.Results are consistent with prior literature suggesting that certain responses deployed by individuals to control intrusive thoughts may be unhelpful, but that a higher level of cognitive capacity may mitigate this effect. Implications of these findings for recent models of cognition in PTSD are discussed.

Pub.: 08 Jan '16, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

What good are positive emotions for treatment? Trait positive emotionality predicts response to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety.

Abstract: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is empirically supported for the treatment of anxiety disorders; however, not all individuals achieve recovery following CBT. Positive emotions serve a number of functions that theoretically should facilitate response to CBT - they promote flexible patterns of information processing and assimilation of new information, encourage approach-oriented behavior, and speed physiological recovery from negative emotions. We conducted a secondary analysis of an existing clinical trial dataset to test the a priori hypothesis that individual differences in trait positive emotions would predict CBT response for anxiety.Participants meeting diagnostic criteria for panic disorder (n = 28) or generalized anxiety disorder (n = 31) completed 10 weekly individual CBT sessions. Trait positive emotionality was assessed at pre-treatment, and severity of anxiety symptoms and associated impairment was assessed throughout treatment.Participants who reported a greater propensity to experience positive emotions at pre-treatment displayed the largest reduction in anxiety symptoms as well as fewer symptoms following treatment. Positive emotions remained a robust predictor of change in symptoms when controlling for baseline depression severity.Initial evidence supports the predictive value of trait positive emotions as a prognostic indicator for CBT outcome in a GAD and PD sample.

Pub.: 28 Mar '17, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

Brain activation during fear extinction predicts exposure success

Abstract: Exposure therapy, a gold-standard treatment for anxiety disorders, is assumed to work via extinction learning, but this has never been tested. Anxious individuals demonstrate extinction learning deficits, likely related to less ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and more amygdala activation, but the relationship between these deficits and exposure outcome is unknown. We tested whether anxious individuals who demonstrate better extinction learning report greater anxiety reduction following brief exposure.Twenty-four adults with public speaking anxiety completed (1) functional magnetic resonance imaging during a conditioning paradigm, (2) a speech exposure session, and (3) anxiety questionnaires before and two weeks postexposure. Extinction learning was assessed by comparing ratings to a conditioned stimulus (neutral image) that was previously paired with an aversive noise against a stimulus that had never been paired. Robust regression analyses examined whether brain activation during extinction learning predicted anxiety reduction two weeks postexposure.On average, the conditioning paradigm resulted in acquisition and extinction effects on stimulus ratings, and the exposure session resulted in reduced anxiety two weeks post-exposure. Consistent with our hypothesis, individuals with better extinction learning (less negative stimulus ratings), greater activation in vmPFC, and less activation in amygdala, insula, and periaqueductal gray reported greater anxiety reduction two weeks postexposure.To our knowledge, this is the first time that the theoretical link between extinction learning and exposure outcome has been demonstrated. Future work should examine whether extinction learning can be used as a prognostic test to determine who is most likely to benefit from exposure therapy.

Pub.: 06 Dec '16, Pinned: 29 Jun '17