Cognitive Reappraisal — Looking at the Bright Side Isn’t Always A Good Thing

Positive thinking may only be useful in coping with certain types of events

When things go wrong in our lives, we use a number of strategies to help us cope. One of these is what scientists call “cognitive reappraisal,” or simply thinking about things differently to moderate how we feel.

For example, if it rained every day on your tropical vacation, you might cope with your disappointment by telling yourself, “It’s still better than the ice and snow.” If you didn’t land the new job you hoped you’d get, you could say to yourself, ”It would have been too much travel for me anyway. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it for long.”  In this way, you literally think yourself out of feeling bad.

An illustration of a brain demonstrating cognitive reappraisal

Credit: doctorscircle.in

Psychologists have traditionally looked at cognitive reappraisal as a healthy strategy for dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs. But now a new study suggests that it is not always such a good thing. More specifically, cognitive reappraisal seems to increase well-being when people use it to cope with uncontrollable events. But it decreases motivation and positive adaptation when we use it for events over which we do have control.

For the study, researchers at the Australian Catholic University measured well-being scores for 74 young adults, using levels of depression, anxiety, stress, social anxiety and self-esteem. They also measured neuroticism, which is a tendency to experience negative emotions in response to life events. Then they gave the subjects a mobile app that pinged them about 10 times a day and asked them if they had used cognitive reappraisal and whether or not they felt in control of the situation at the time.

The results showed that people with the highest well-being scores used cognitive reappraisal in response to uncontrollable events, such as bad weather or a flat tire. They used it less frequently in the context of controllable events, such as failing a test or missing an important appointment.

The opposite was true for people who had the lowest well-being scores. That is, they used cognitive reappraisal most often for controllable events. 

Young firls staring up at the sun using cognitive reappraisal to cope with grief.

Credit: youthareawesome.com

The results seem to show that cognitive reappraisal is most helpful when we have no choice but to accept what’s going on, the researchers explained. When we have a choice — when we can do something to address the cause of our distress — it may leave us less inclined to do the work that fixing the problem requires. “When a situation can be directly changed, reappraisal may undermine the adaptive function of emotions in motivating action,” they wrote.

The study’s findings echo similar research reported in the journal Psychological Science in 2013.

Cause and Effect?

At this juncture, the Australian researchers don’t know if there is a true cause-and-effect relationship between cognitive reappraisal and well-being scores. It may be that happy people are just better at managing negative emotions than those who suffer from anxiety or depression. According to Peter Koval, who co-authored the study, the team is now designing new tools to measure just that.

In the interim, the study reminds us that it is important to be mindful of how regulating our emotions can help us cope with many things, including grief and loss. For example, when we lose someone we love, cognitive reappraisal may help us feel less distressed. Remembering the good times we shared; being thankful for the joys our loved one experienced in their life; even telling ourselves that their suffering has finally come to an end — these are all ways to reframe our sadness by thinking about the loss in a different way. And because death is something we cannot control, doing so may help us grieve in a more positive, emotionally healthy way.

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