Why do some people perform better than others under emotionally stressful conditions? The answer may lie in early childhood experiences, a new study suggests.
Emotional bonds with our primary caregiver or parent in early childhood are thought to be the basis of our ability to regulate our emotions as adults, said researchers from the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany.
"We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations, but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?" said Christine Heinisch, one of the authors of the study.
Not everyone’s actions are impacted by emotions to the same extent. Some of us had emotionally responsive caregivers or parents in childhood, while others did not.
It is these early experiences, according to the "attachment" theory in psychology, which influences the ability to regulate emotions as adults.
"We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task – and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience;" said Heinisch.
To test this theory, researchers conducted a study on adult subjects with different childhood caregiver experiences.
Subjects in the study performed a task of identifying a target letter from among a series of flashing letters.
This task was administered under conditions that evoked a positive, neutral, or negative emotional state. The researchers then assessed task performance and analysed EEG recordings of brain function in their subjects.
Subjects who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers in childhood (insecure-attached) had more trouble performing under emotionally negative conditions than the others (secure-attached).
They also had lower brain activity in response to the target letter under negative conditions than secure-attached subjects.
The lower task performance correlated with inefficient strategies for emotional regulation seen in insecure-attached adults.
This could mean that a greater share of cognitive resources was allocated for regulating emotions, and consequently, less was available for performing the task.
The study was published in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.