Emotional problems plague everyone from time to time. From feelings of depression to overwhelming anxiety, there are times when we feel unpleasant emotions more intensely than we normally do. To some degree, this is just part of the human experience. As long as we have a brain, we will experience varying degrees of all variety of feelings. Negative emotions can signal that something is important to us, or that we care about something. As unpleasant as emotional pain may feel sometimes, it plays an important role in our lives. However, when emotions get especially intense, they can become problematic. Sadness can turn into depression. Anxiety can trigger panic. Intense Anger can result in hurt feelings if we let it dictate our behavior. It can be important to have ways of modulating more intense feelings so they don’t overwhelm us and create a momentum of their own.
You may have noticed when you’re in the middle of one of these intense emotional states, that your thinking becomes markedly one-note. Intense sadness tunes out all thoughts that are not intensely sad. The same goes with other emotions. When we are angry, we have angry thoughts, and when frightened, frightening thoughts, etc. This results in a kind of tunnel vision in which the only thoughts that occur to our minds end up stoking the fire of our emotions even more. You may have found yourself in a cycle where thoughts stirred emotions, which influenced your thoughts, which stirred the emotions, and on and on. This negative feedback loop is partly responsible for chronic emotional disorders, and in less severe cases, can really ruin your day. At times like these, it becomes very important to have a way of short-circuiting this cycle.
The skill known as cognitive reappraisal, is one powerful way of skillfully nudging your emotions back toward baseline (Barlow et al., 2011). Cognitive reappraisal involves recognizing the negative pattern your thoughts have fallen into, and changing that pattern to one that is more effective. Changing the course of your thoughts, or how you’re making sense of things, can in turn change the course of your emotions, turning the dial down a couple of notches. Feeling more even-keel, it becomes easier to address whatever triggered the negative emotions, and to do so skillfully. For example, imagine you take a wrong turn on the way to a party and end up getting lost, making you considerably late. Your first response may be to get frustrated, appraising the situation by thinking “This road construction is terrible! The city needs to get it together to find a different way of detouring traffic.” This appraisal may make you angry. If you are more prone to anger, your anger may run away with you, causing you to be fuming and ruin your time at the party once you arrive.
Instead of playing out this unpleasant, seemingly automatic cycle, take a moment to consider another perspective (reappraisal) you might have in this situation. The mere act of considering other interpretations can help to loosen your grip on your more angry perspective. Furthermore, other ways of looking at this situation might cause you to experience other feelings. Consider the following reappraisals:
· I always get lost. Why can’t I seem to do anything right?
· Oh no! If I’m late to the party, everyone will be angry at me and no one will talk to me.
· I have the birthday cake in the trunk. Now everyone at the party will have to wait for me before they can get started, and that’s miserable.
These different ways of thinking about the situation will obviously elicit different emotional responses, although they’re not really an improvement on the first response. What’s interesting about them is that all of them contain at least a kernel of truth. None of them is out-and-out irrational. Some of them may be a bit extreme, but not irrational. This is significant because it illustrates there usually isn’t just one way of making sense of a situation. All are valid. This means it’s possible to take an alternative perspective that is more effective in helping us feel more balanced.
Now consider the following reappraisals:
· Thank God, I will spare myself 30 minutes of talking to Elizabeth. I dodged a bullet there!
· I’m late again. I might as well enjoy the scenery while I’m driving around.
· People probably won’t care that much that I’m late.
· I’m usually on-time. What a fluke!
· Life happened.
These appraisals also contain a kernel of truth. They are not merely the “power of positive thinking,” but reality-based ways of re-appraising the situation. Moreover, they would probably be more helpful in helping us keep our head while we try to find our way to the party. While running over these new thoughts, you might still probably hear the old appraisal in your head: “This road construction is terrible! The city needs to get it together to find a different way of detouring traffic.” But now you can add some nuance to it, adding different viewpoints, and thinking in a way that keeps a lid on your level of distress. The point is to allow other ways of making sense of a situation coexist with the more emotionally triggering appraisal.
The next time you notice yourself getting in one of these emotion-thought feedback loops, consider a few cognitive reappraisals of the situation, and notice what happens to the volume of your emotions. Think “What are some alternative explanations?” “What’s really the worst that could happen, and would I live through it?” “If I were in a better mood, how might I be thinking about this situation?” Considering a situation from a few angles improves our cognitive flexibility, and can help us not jump to the same knee-jerk reaction that has us feeling lousy.
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Barlow, D.W. et al. (2011). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Therapist Guide. London: Oxford University Press.