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The stress response plays a key role in
emotional recognition and social attention (Dunbar 2003). The
hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is involved in the response to this
stress. In particular, cortisol, a stress hormone, is involved in modulating
this process (Antonijevic 2008).
Understanding the relationship between the amygdala’s functioning as it
pertains to the stress response is beneficial because it provides researchers
and health care professionals with an understanding of how the interaction
between chemical and physical factor’s in one’s external and internal
environments dictates behaviour (Ressler

Humans are social animals (Dunbar 2003). From an
evolutionary perspective, social relationships are prioritised because these
associations contributed to an increased likelihood of survival prior to the
establishment of civilised societies (Cheng,
Tracy and Henrich 2010). Likewise, the stress response was an important
survival mechanism that allowed humans to escape from life-threatening
situations. The stress response and emotional recognition share similarities in
terms of the stimuli that trigger them, and the biological outcomes that
result. Both processes are related to the activity of neurons in the
hippocampus (Mowat 2010). Emotional
regulation is a strategy used in psychological therapy allows people to gain
greater control of their emotions (Mowat 2010). Since there is a relationship
between the psychology of behaviour and the biological regulation of emotions
and stress through hormones and neurotransmitters, it is plausible that
emotional regulation therapy can be used to mitigate the signal transduction
that occurs in response to a stimulus.

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This research will be investigating the manner
in which the amygdala is activated while a patient is participating in emotional
recognition and social attention tasks. The results and conclusions made from
this research will give scientists a better understanding on the effects of
social attention and emotional recognition on subjective anxiety states.

Researchers have hypothesised that emotion regulation could be used to reduce anxiety (Cisler
et al. 2009). The process of emotional regulation could be used to reduce a
feeling of anxiety, or increase it. The outcome of this experience depends
largely on the specific emotional regulation strategy applied. Poor emotional
regulation may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders (Cisler et
al. 2009). According to a 2012 study, “Early
stressful life events and alterations of hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA)
axis function seem to have a significant role in the onset of anxiety” (Faravelli et al. 2012, p. 68). When patients
experience physical and/or psychological stress, the HPA axis activates. Specifically,
corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) are
secreted from the hypothalamus. Downstream from these initial signalling
hormones, adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) is released from the anterior
pituitary, causing the synthesis of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol. Cortisol
is the substance that is responsible for modulating behaviour and emotions (Faravelli
et al. 2012).

The amygdala is important to the stress response
process. It has been determined that amygdala response is increased when people
experience anxiety. This structure is thought to play a role in the acquisition
of fear conditioning (Shin
and Liberzon 2009). While the hippocampus is responsible for releasing the
hormones that activates a stress response, these two structures are both necessary
for this process.


The amygdala plays a valuable role in emotional
recognition (Adolphs 2003).
Interestingly, the amygdala and other structures that are associated with
emotional recognition are also associated with social behaviour (Dunbar 2003). The
effective self-regulation of emotions is related to motivational evaluation and
the emotional response in the body (LeDoux 1995). The amygdala plays a role in
motivational evaluation, along with the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral
striatum (Adolphs 2003). As a part of the stress response process, the amygdala
receives processed information and stores it. This structure can later
participate in a range of functions, including memory recall, decision making,
and attention.

A part of the amygdala’s role in emotional
recognition is related to its involvement in the fear response (LeDoux 1995).
The amygdala consists of thirteen different subnuclei. One of these, the CeA,
is responsible for the modulation of the fear response (Ressler 2010). This
process involves the regulation of cortisol levels (Ressler 2010). This
substance travels through the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and
then triggers the startle response via the midbrain. Therefor then inducing
changes in the lateral hypothalamus (Ressler 2010). Individuals who have
lesions present in the CeA do not exhibit the same conditioned fear responses
as those who do not have lesions present (Davidson,
Schwartz and Shapiro 1983). Thus, this specific component of the amygdala is
responsible for regulating fear.


The amygdala fills an important role
in helping people detect stimuli that enhance their ability to communicate with
other people. In particular, the amygdala is responsible for helping an
individual orient their gaze and attention on a relevant social stimulus
(Birmingham, Cerf and Adolphs 2011). Interestingly,
patients (eg. SM) with lesions on the amygdala are unable to use information
about an individual’s face as a social cue. the process of evolution,
it is highly likely that the existing neural systems become co-opted or
repurposed to cope with an increasing demand for social processing (Dunbar
2003). In terms of natural selection, individuals who formed tighter social
groups were more likely to survive, so genetics that favoured these social
interactions were inherited by their offspring (Cheng et al. 2010). These
traits are present in the population today.

Social stimuli may optimally drive certain neurological
circuits (Dunbar 2003). While one’s experiences and learning abilities interact
with this relationship, it is the exposure to the stimulus itself that often
directs the stress response. Unlike learning from one’s own mistakes, learning
from others requires an individual taking an action, and the learner is able to
change their practices based on the observed outcome (Dunbar 2003). A similar
process could be used to employ emotional regulation to exert better
psychological control over the stress response process (LeDoux 1995).

A key factor that could be utilised to support
emotional regulation is the knowledge that people are motivated to change their
behaviours when they are given an award (LeDoux 1995). From a biological
perspective, neuronal activity accommodates the feeling of success or “winning” (Panksepp 1982). Thus, this sensation is
naturally used as reinforcement to enable people to participate in beneficial

Ultimately, social status has the potential to
influence emotions, which is modulated by the stress response. Social
interactions serve as a form of stimuli that the brain reacts to in the same
manner that it processes threats from the external environment. The available
research therefore indicates that the emotional response is closely related to
the stress response. The amygdala is responsible for receiving processed
information about a stimulus, and the hippocampus then releases hormones to
encourage an action to be taken by an individual. Heightened responses occur
when people experience anxiety. One way to reduce the emotional and behavioural
response associated with the HPA axis, is to implement emotional regulation.
Since the stress response occurs due to an interaction of factors in the
environment, an individual’s psychological status, and the brain’s chemistry,
it is possible for patients to control these responses as a therapeutic goal.

Overall, the stress response plays a key role in
emotional recognition and social attention. Thus, although these reactions may
result in unintended or unwanted feelings or behaviours, the original purpose
of this system was to help animals detect the presence of danger. Social
situations trigger emotional responses because social behaviours were valued
because these practices enhanced survival. The stress response system still
acts in this manner, but we are now able to use our understanding of brain
anatomy and physiology to help patients limit this response in a manner that
will decrease anxiety symptoms and support mental health. 

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