Modern life is stressful and now neuroscientists are showing why traditional, "top-down," cognitively-based methods work fine when we don't need them, but when stress mounts, the brain will not let us use these approaches. They fail us! What do we need? Emotional tools, not mindful awareness or cognitive techniques.

In their study to test out why these "top-down" methods are the primary treatments for what ails us, from overeating and back pain to anxiety and relationship issues, New York University researchers completed an elegant study. They taught cognitive methods to really healthy people, just the individuals who would be most apt to use these techniques no matter what - even in stress.

Then the next day, the researchers showed their subjects a frightening image that had elicited a strong stress response the day before and told them to use their newly-learned cognitive techniques to shut off that fear response. Some study participants stuck their arms in room-temperature water before seeing the scary image and others submerged their arms in an ice bath for long enough to mimic the stress of daily life.

The "top-down" cognitive techniques were not effective in reducing stress. Raio, C.M., (2013) Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Sep 10; 110(37): 15139–15144.

What did the researchers discover? The unstressed people used the cognitive "top-down" techniques and shut off the stress response. Perfect! Even more perfect was that the stressed participants could not turn off the stress response! They stayed stressed for 10 or 20 minutes after seeing the scary image. What did the researchers say?

"That cognitive emotion regulation techniques are rendered ineffective under stress has broad implications for the efficacy of cognitive regulation to change behavior in everyday life. Importantly, these results offer insight into why strategies taught in the clinic may not always generalize to the real world, where stress exposure is ubiquitous."

We think that these methods work because they work when we are assessing them, but with the real-world stress that is part of all of our lives, they do not work. Typically, rather than judging the method and updating our approaches to brain-based healthcare, we blame ourselves for that overreaction, that unhealthy habit, or that stall. Now we have a new option: update our approach to brain-based health.

It is time!