Background: Failure to self-regulate after an interpersonal conflict can result in persistent negative mood and maladaptive behaviors. Research indicates that lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) activity is related to emotion regulation in response to laboratory-based affective challenges, such as viewing emotional pictures. This suggests that compromised LPFC function may be a risk factor for mood and behavior problems after an interpersonal conflict. However, it remains unclear whether LPFC activity to a laboratory-based affective challenge predicts self-regulation in real life.
Methods: We investigated whether LPFC activity to a laboratory-based affective challenge (negative facial expressions of a partner) predicts self-regulation after a real-life affective challenge (interpersonal conflict). During a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, healthy, adult participants in committed relationships (n=27) viewed positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions of their partners. In a three-week online daily diary, participants reported conflict occurrence, level of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
Results: LPFC activity in response to the laboratory-based affective challenge predicted self-regulation after an interpersonal conflict in daily life. When there was no interpersonal conflict, LPFC activity was not related to mood or behavior the next day. However, when an interpersonal conflict did occur, ventral LPFC (VLPFC) activity predicted mood and behavior the next day, such that lower VLPFC activity was related to higher levels of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
Conclusions: Low LPFC function may be a vulnerability and high LPFC function may be a protective factor for the development of mood and behavior problems after an interpersonal stressor.