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How to Deal With Negative Emotions: Cognitive Reappraisal

in Mental Toughness

Imagine taking a wrong turn on the way to a party. You end up getting lost and considerably late.

As you frantically try to find your way back on track your first response may be to get frustrated and think to yourself that your GPS is totally useless.

Now a flood of other negative thoughts are taking over; ”I always get lost, what’s wrong with me?”, ”If I’m late to the party people will think I’m disrespectful and no one will talk to me”, ”Oh no! I have the birthday cake in the trunk! Now everyone will have to wait for me!!”

These thoughts add to your stress and soon enough you’re angry; perhaps so much so that it ruins your time at the party once you get there.

Cognitive Reappraisal

Now consider how you would feel if you caught yourself in this emotional downward spiral and instead thought to yourself; ”People probably won’t care that much if I’m late”, ”I might as well enjoy the beautiful scenery out here while I’m driving around” or simply ”Life happened”.

This act of recognising and changing the pattern your thoughts have fallen into is what psychologists call ”cognitive reappraisal” (1). When you do this, the emotions you experience lose a bit of their intensity and allow you to deal more productively with whatever triggered them in the first place.

Note that this is not just the ‘power of positive thinking’, but rather an alternative way of dealing with the reality of the situation.

The people at the party will have to wait for the cake but they probably won’t care that much about it anyway. The only real difference here lies in how you tackle the situation. If you focus on the negative, you’ll increase the likelihood of being even later and ruining the evening for yourself and the people around you.

However, if you reappraise the situation in a positive light, you free up more mental space to get to the party faster as well as increasing your chances of bouncing back and making this a memorable evening.

”Now the Fun Begins!”

Some people are angry all the time. Others never seem to lose their cool. Some people snap under the slightest bit of pressure. Others perform better than ever when the heat is on.

It all comes down to how you, as an individual, perceive a certain situation.

Practicing cognitive reappraisal is a way of training yourself in the fine art of catching small emotional droplets before they turn into a flood.

The next time you find yourself dealing with a frustrating situation, let it become the training ground for your mind.

Instead of getting bogged down, tell yourself, ”Aha! Here’s a frustrating situation! Now the fun begins!”

How to Deal With Negative Emotions in 3 Steps

Once you have managed to grab hold of your own attention, reframe the situation using the following three steps:

  1. Breathe. When you become aware of a negative emotion that is taking over your mental state, take three deep breaths. Deep breathing will deliver more oxygen to your brain which helps you calm down so that you can focus your attention and think more clearly.
  2. Label. Take a moment to focus on what you are feeling and then label your emotion. For example: ”I am starting to get angry” or ”I am feeling anxious”. Research has shown that labelling feelings decreases the emotional response in the brain (2).
  3. Reappraise. Finally, reappraise your perception of the situation in more positive terms in order to take the ‘sting out of the emotional punch’. It doesn’t matter whether this is an objective reappraisal or not — research has shown that the action of reappraising ”can profoundly affect the quality (which emotion) and the quantity (the intensity of the emotion) of the subsequent emotional response” (3).

Just like anything else, cognitive reappraisal takes practice. Hopefully you’ll experience a big difference the first time you try it but if you don’t, it’s not a big deal. Consistency is key.

Let negative feelings become a trigger for your reappraisal practice. The real magic begins when you get really good at viewing setbacks and frustrating situations as a great opportunity to practice your mind.

Footnotes

  1. Seeing the Silver Lining: Cognitive Reappraisal Ability Moderates the Relationship Between Stress and Depressive Symptoms
  2. Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli
  3. Handbook of Emotion Regulation