The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults.
Emotion regulation is commonly characterized as involving conscious and intentional attempts to change felt emotions, such as, for example, through reappraisal whereby one intentionally decreases the intensity of one's emotional response to a particular stimulus or situation by reinterpreting it in a less threatening way. However, there is growing evidence and appreciation that some types of emotion regulation are unintentional or incidental, meaning that affective modulation is a consequence but not an explicit goal. For example, affect labeling involves simply verbally labeling the emotional content of an external stimulus or one's own affective responses without an intentional goal of altering emotional responses, yet has been associated with reduced affective responses at the neural and experiential levels. Although both intentional and incidental emotional regulation strategies have been associated with diminished limbic responses and self-reported distress, little previous research has directly compared their underlying neural mechanisms. In this study, we examined the extent to which incidental and intentional emotion regulation, namely, affect labeling and reappraisal, produced common and divergent neural and self-report responses to aversive images relative to an observe-only control condition in a sample of healthy older adults (N = 39). Affect labeling and reappraisal produced common activations in several prefrontal regulatory regions, with affect labeling producing stronger responses in direct comparisons. Affect labeling and reappraisal were also associated with similar decreases in amygdala activity. Finally, affect labeling and reappraisal were associated with correlated reductions in self-reported distress. Together these results point to common neurocognitive mechanisms involved in affect labeling and reappraisal, supporting the idea that intentional and incidental emotion regulation may utilize overlapping neural processes.