What makes you frustrated? How do you react to the frustration? People become frustrated even in situations that may not be a big deal in daily life. One common frustration is encountering technology issues such as computer malfunctions. While this is just one frustration, it is a critical solution for mental health.
Frustration is most commonly studied using reward downshift procedures in which an individual is first trained to expect a large reward, and then that reward becomes lesser. The surprising reward loss results in rejection of the new reward, followed by a recovery phase in which they come to accept the lesser reward. Studies with rats have demonstrated the involvement of several systems related to pain and stress during incentive downshifts. Researchers have found that the downshift triggers activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). The emotional response to the change in reward can be regulated by opioid drugs such as morphine. In combination with comparative studies, the discovery of shared mechanisms between pain and frustration has led to the hypothesis that the capacity for frustration observed in mammals comes from the pain system created in early mammals. Frustration from reward downshifts ties together the elements of reward processing, emotional disruption, opioids, and interaction with pain.
In order to understand the opioid receptor (OPRM1) gene and human behavior during frustrating situations, researchers enrolled 62 students in introductory-level psychology or genetics course in a U.S university. The first reward downshift task measured the performance in two consecutive phases (a higher reward phase followed by a lower reward phase) by the number of correct button pressing. In the second task, participants were told to solve a Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) to measure computer frustration. These were selected from Google images as exceptionally difficult CAPTCHAs to solve. The program made them unsolvable by ignoring the participant’s typed input and presenting an error message. The participant then had to wait for 2 seconds before the program gave them a new CAPTCHA to solve. This continued for up to 20 unsolvable CAPTCHAs, or until the participant approached the researcher about having difficulty or that the program was not working. At that point, they were told to skip the rest of that phase. Results showed that participants with at least one G allele at rs1799971 were slower to experience recovery following a reward downshift and quit a computer frustrating task earlier than those without the G allele, suggesting that G-carriers exhibit higher vulnerability in frustration. Additionally, pain sensitivity analysis revealed that G-carriers were more sensitive to physical pain than those without the G allele.
The opioid system is central to pain, frustration, mood disorders, and substance abuse. Discovering genetic risk markers for vulnerability and resilience in the face of reward loss may lead to better ways to manage risk and suggest different treatment pathways, especially for nonresponsive individuals to the current popular treatment options. Read more about the study here:
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