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Need Help Coping With COVID-19? Try Cognitive Reappraisal

We all experience anxiety and sadness occasionally. While not always pleasant, when we feel these negative emotions, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong.

Unfortunately, emotions can sometimes become overwhelming, and serve no useful purpose. When not addressed, feelings like dadness can cause depression. Anxiety becomes so powerful that becomes panic. And, aggression follows anger.

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers numerous techniques for handling overwhelmingly negative emotions. One such technique is cognitive reappraisal.

What is cognitive reappraisal?

An effective way of successfully resetting your emotions is through cognitive reappraisal, a skill you can learn. You can change your negative thoughts to a more effective pattern by engaging in cognitive reappraisal. Your thought process or the way in which you are seeing things can, in turn, influence your emotions, decreasing the intensity. When your feelings are in a more balanced state, you're better able to handle anything that triggered the negative emotions.

Imagine taking a wrong turn on the way to a party due to construction. As a result, you end up being significantly late. First, you may feel frustrated by this situation and think, "This is awful! I think the city ought to find a different method to detour traffic." These comments might then make you angry. When you finally arrive at the party you may be fuming, which causes you to have a bad time.

Try reappraising the situation from another perspective (reappraisal) rather than repeating this unpleasant, seemingly automatic cycle. Just considering a different interpretation is capable of allowing one to lose hold of an angry viewpoint. Moreover, you could have different feelings depending on how you approach this situation.

Take into account these reappraisals:

  • Getting lost is always an issue for me. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me?

  • I will not be able to talk to anyone if I'm late for the party. And, they might even be upset with me.

  • It was my responsibility to bring the birthday care. Everyone at the party is waiting for me to get started. And, that’s a real pain!

Though they may evoke different emotional responses, these alternative ways of viewing the situation are actually no better than the first-order response. Each of them contains at least a little truth, and that's what makes them interesting. In fact, they’re all rational in some way or another -- even if some seem a little extreme.

Because of this, it can be seen that there are usually a variety of ways to understand a stressful situation, like arriving late to a party when you have the cake with you. There is no right or wrong answer. As a result, a more balanced mindset can be achieved by taking an alternative perspective.

Let's take a new look at the following:

  • On the bright side, at least I have 20-minutes less to spend with my toxic cousin who always brings me down.

  • Oh well, I'm running late. While I'm driving around, I might as well enjoy the scenery or the music I’m listening to.

  • It’s unlikely that people will even notice that I’m late.

  • Usually, I'm on time. This was just a fluke.

  • I have no control over having to take a detour because of the construction going on.

There is some truth in these appraisals as well. Instead of merely focusing on positive thinking, they are reality-based approaches to re-appraising situations. We might even be more inclined to stay focused if they could help us get to the party.

Despite these new ideas, your head probably still echoes the old assessment: "This road construction is horrible!". You can add some nuance to it, thinking differently, and keeping a lid on your level of distress. But, you can stop there, adding a different viewpoint to it. It’s important to allow other ways of interpreting a situation to coexist with the emotionally triggering one.

Why is it important to build reappraisal ability?

It's possible that you have noticed that when undergoing these intense emotional states, your thoughts become somewhat one-dimensional. It’s impossible to think about anything that is not intensely sad when you are feeling depressed.

Other emotions follow the same pattern. Our thoughts can be angry or frightening depending on our emotional state. As a result, we end up experiencing a kind of tunnel vision, where the only thoughts that come to our minds end up stoking our emotions even further.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a cycle of emotions stirring up thoughts, then you know that this only stirs up even more emotions. In less severe situations, this could cause you to have a bad day. However, the negative feedback loop is partly responsible for chronic emotional disorders. And, that requires a method for short-circuiting the cycle.

Cognitive reappraisal and COVID-19.

Furthermore, research has found that cognitive reappraisal can be used in everything from making exercise, like running, more enjoyable to help us feel better during this seemingly never-ending pandemic.

“As part of the attempt of the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA) to address pressing questions related to the psychological impact of COVID-19, we aimed to use reappraisal interventions to mitigate negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and enhance psychological resilience in response to the pandemic,” said Ke Wang, a doctoral student at Harvard University, who authored a study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

“To maximize the impact of these interventions, we had a global reach of large, diverse samples via the PSA’s network, and employed highly scalable methods that were translated for use around the world,” Wang explained.

This study involved 21,644 individuals who were shown a series of images relating to COVID-19 and had to rate their emotional reactions to the images. Research participants were exposed to two types of training conditions during reappraisal interventions and to two types of control conditions. All four conditions were assigned randomly to the participants.

Reconstructory conditioning involves encouraging participants to realize that the current situation is only temporary, among other things. Repurposing encouraged participants to dwell on any positive aspects of the situation. The active control condition encouraged the participants to pay attention to their emotions as they took shape. They were instructed to respond naturally to the images in the passive control condition.

In comparison to the control groups, reconstrual and repurposing increased positive emotional responses but decreased negative emotional responses. Although the severity of the pandemic had varied locally when the study was taken, it held true regardless. Both reappraisal methods were similarly effective.

“Reappraisal, an emotion-regulation strategy that modifies how one thinks about a situation, effectively reduced negative emotions and increased positive emotions among participants across 87 countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, without reducing intentions to practice preventive health behaviors,” Wang told PsyPost. “The effects of the intervention were not meager, helping ease the emotional toll caused by lockdown and self-isolation.”

“This situation is helping us realize the importance of meaningful social connections, and helping us understand who the most important people in our lives are” (repurposing) and “I know from world history that keeping calm and carrying on gets us through tough times” (reconstrual).

This study showed that cognitive reappraisal could mitigate the psychological effects of a COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the researchers note that the benefits lasted only for a short time.

“One main limitation relates to the fact that the current study examined only the immediate and proximal effects of the interventions. Future research employing longitudinal designs is needed to examine whether the effects persist over time and at what intervals individuals might optimally engage in reappraisal,” Wang said.

“Another main limitation is that the current study examined only a limited number of outcomes via self-report measures. More comprehensive evaluations, including assessments of actual behaviors (rather than intentions) and health outcomes, are necessary to determine whether there are any additional benefits or unintended consequences of the interventions.”

How to practice positive reappraisal.

Reappraising past events, experiences, or challenges can be strengthened by practicing finding the benefits of them.

Writing down things you learned from a past failure is one way to practice reappraising. As an example, you might have learned to prioritize better, delegate more, or ease up on your perfectionistic tendencies after missing an important deadline.

For a fresh perspective, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has this situation led to any positive outcomes? For instance, the pandemic has meant that you’ve spent more time with your family or picked up a new hobby.

  • Is there anything about this situation that makes you grateful?

  • How have you progressed since you first started?

  • Have you learned anything new?

  • Due to this situation, what have you grown and developed?

If you notice yourself getting into one of these emotion-thought feedback loops, reappraise your thoughts and emotions and identify alternative perspectives. By following a few angles in a situation, we enhance our cognitive flexibility and stop reacting with the same knee-jerk reaction.

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