Cognitive Reappraisal or Using Reframing to Cope with Unpleasant Feelings by@roxanamurariu

Cognitive Reappraisal or Using Reframing to Cope with Unpleasant Feelings

Frida Ghitis: Emotions are complex experiences composed of several elements: emotions, physical reactions, behavior and beliefs. Ghitis says we all use a combination of suppression and cognitive reappraisal (reframing) in our daily lives. She says reframing our perspective on a situation to decrease its negative power over us is far superior to suppressing or manipulating our physiological responses.Ghitis: If we want to change how we react to an upsetting situation, which one of these three components of our emotional experiences would most effectively bring a balanced and reasonable emotional response?
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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others. Personal blog: https://roxanamurariu.com/

In psychologist Guy Winch’s book The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem, I came across one of the most descriptive explanations on how to handle the emotional load of uncomfortable situations. 

What we call feelings are complex experiences composed of several elements. Anger, frustration, sadness, rage, exasperation, etc., are our subjective experiences (“feelings”) of particular events in our life.

First, these emotional experiences are always accompanied by physiological reactions: potential elevated heart rate and blood pressure, stress hormones possibly released into the bloodstream, the electrodermal activity (the electrical chemical conductivity) of our skin has probably changed too. 

Then, we have the behavioral expressions of our emotional state: our voice can change dramatically, our faces tighten, redden or pale, our eyes bulge or weep. 

The last component of emotional responses is our thoughts and beliefs about our emotional experience. For example, if we are too late for a family reunion, we might believe we are terrible people for missing it. 

Winch asks in his book, if we want to change how we react to an upsetting situation, which one of these three components of our emotional experiences would most effectively bring a balanced and reasonable emotional response?

By far, the most challenging component to fully manipulate would be our physiological responses. We can try to lower our heart rates or blood pressure by counting to ten or breathing in and out, but proper controlling of our nervous system (dropping our blood pressure or heart rates at will) is not realistically possible for most of us. 

 Suppression

As we all are social creatures, a significant, if not the most important, part of why we are doing things in a certain way is because other people are watching. And so, when we are watched, we control our behavioral expressions by hiding them, smiling when we feel rage, being quiet when we want to spew fire. Containing the behavioral manifestations of our emotions by hiding them is called suppression.   

Some of the behaviors we suppress are what make us civilized. In a book I read as a child, The Code of the Good Manners, written by Aurelia Marinescu, the author described a mother’s and daughter’s dialogue. Another person invited them to lunch, and the daughter asked what should she do if she didn’t like the food and she would feel sick. The mother replied that the daughter would have to wait to feel sick until she came back home.  

Suppression might be efficient in some cases. If we lose a flight, angrily approaching the clerk to put us on the waiting list will do no favors. Instead, we might suppress our frustration by speaking slowly, maybe forcing a smile, even if our hands are clenching under the clerk’s desk.

We still experiment with all the devastating effects of uncomfortable emotions with suppression, but we focus on hiding them from the outside world. As in the words of the glorious Queen, “Inside my heart is breaking / My makeup may be flaking / But my smile, still, stays on.” Watching poker players with their “poker face” is seeing suppression in action. 

The last component of our emotional response that we can modify is our thoughts and beliefs about our emotional experience. Psychologists call this technique cognitive reappraisal (it is called reappraisal because we reframe or reinterpret our appraisal of our subjective interpretations to stimuli and experiences).

We all use a combination of suppression and cognitive reappraisal (reframing) in our daily lives. Some of us might use suppression more, and others might favor reframing.

Reframing Our Perspective

Not surprisingly, reframing our perspective on a situation to decrease its negative power over us is far superior to suppressing or manipulating our physiological responses

There are a few methods to apply cognitive reappraisal. First, we have positive reframing, a way of thinking about a challenging situation more positively. 

Are there any lessons to learn? Are there any positive outcomes from this situation? Are we grateful for any part of this situation? Can we grow as a result of this situation? 

An example of positive reframing is the following poem written by Kurt Vonnegut.

JOE HELLER 

True story, Word of Honor: 

Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer 

now dead, 

and I were at a party given by a billionaire 

on Shelter Island. 

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel 

to know that our host only yesterday 

may have made more money 

than your novel ‘Catch-22’ 

has earned in its entire history?” 

And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.” 

And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” 

And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” 

Not bad! Rest in peace! 

Another strategy for cognitive reappraisal is recognizing that thoughts are merely guesses and not facts. As I wrote in another article, How Neuroscience Deconstructs Our Internal Monologue: Confabulation and Cognitive Biases, the brain tries to build a narrative from all the inputs, memories, behaviors, or events around us.

During this process, it creates a voice. We all hear that voice, the narrator’s voice. We can listen to it now, reading this text to us, commenting, connecting ideas, creating assertions. This voice is a superb storyteller that misleads us into tying our identity to our thoughts. The narrator’s voice is powerful because it influences our thoughts, biases, feelings, actions, and decisions that will lead to a specific emotional interpretation of an event. 

Examples of reframing are how parents can help children reframe thinking about homework as a transferable skill to apply to real-world scenarios.

Or can we use reframing against procrastination by realizing that we don’t need to feel a specific state to start a task. Doing is a choice that shouldn’t depend on feeling.

The actual click as a parent for me happened when I started to use reframing more than suppression. I am not a calm person by nature, and for my daughter’s first years, I used methods for emotional coping that were only somewhat effective.

I would count to ten, get a glass of water, close my mouth instead of throwing words likes rocks, step out of the room and let my daughter with my husband (suppression or trying to control my physiological responses).

There was a particular social interaction, among other things, that helped me reframe the way I saw parenting. My daughter was close to having a tantrum in a store. I left everything on the ground to hold her and calm her. An elderly couple came to me and asked me: “Are you going to let her win?” I was too caught up with my daughter to answer something.

Replaying in my mind this one line of conversation improved my parenting approach. I realized I didn’t want a confrontation, combat-style relation between my daughter and me. I wanted a collaboration between us so that my limits on her behaviors are supportive, not punitive. I wish my daughter to follow the rules not because she fears punishment but because she understands why the rules exist.

Conclusion

To recap, we can modify any of the three characteristics of an emotion (physiological reactions, behavioral expressions or beliefs) to make them more bearable. Changing our beliefs or perceptions about a problematic situation has the highest chance to change the emotional impact of that situation.

Unfortunately, we can’t escape our automatic responses most of the time.

As writer Anne Lamott said, it is an “inside job” to reappraise or reframe our thoughts about our experiences so that we fundamentally alter the meaning of conflictual situations. A tremendous task to reframe our flaws and claws, our limitations and thorns. And still…

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

Not all uncomfortable feelings can allow for reframing at first (e.g., grieving someone’s death). In another article, I will write about grieving in more detail.

For the time being, I will leave Nora McInerny’s TED talk about grief. In 2014, McInerny lost her second pregnancy, her dad, and her husband in a few weeks. After experiencing enormous loss, how could she become more comfortable with her grieving? Perhaps because in time, she reframed the process of her continuing her life not as “moving on” but moving forward with her scars. 

Previously published here.

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