Scientists have found that different brain areas are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to inhibit an emotion.
Researchers from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University in Belgium scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when people chose to suppress an emotion.
They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.
"This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally," said lead author Dr Simone Kuhn from Ghent University.
In most previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or inhibit an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide ourselves whether to feel or control our emotions.
In this new study the researchers showed fifteen healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the participants.
They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.
Different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain.
In contrast, when participants were instructed by the experimenter to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.
"We think controlling one's emotions and controlling one's behaviour involve overlapping mechanisms," said Kuhn.
"We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions," Kuhn said.
Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) co-author of the paper said the brain mechanism identified in this study could be a potential target for therapies.
The study was published in journal Brain Structure and Function.