How to Cope With Negative Life Events:
The Power of Cognitive Reappraisal

Written by Rida Tahir on May 01, 2020 (7 minute read)

It's your best friend's birthday in two days and you haven't yet bought a birthday present for her. So you head straight out the door and walk 20 minutes to the nearest gift shop only to find that the shop is closed. You're frustrated, disappointed and angry. What do you do? 

Ideally, you walk back home, enjoying the cool breeze and fresh air, and tell yourself that at least you got out of the house and got 40 minutes of exercise in fresh air. Besides, you still have another day to buy something for her!

Now you are no longer frustrated, disappointed or angry.

This is called Cognitive Reappraisal

What is Cognitive Reappraisal?

Cognitive Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy that involves reinterpreting or reevaluating a negative situation or event and reframing it to change our emotional response to that situation and reduce the negative impact it could have on our mental health.

In other words, we have the power to change our negative emotions to positive or fight negativity with positivity by changing the way we think. By doing so, even extremely painful and traumatic events such as divorce, death or miscarriage can become less painful and more tolerable. All negative events in our life have a silver lining; we just need to find it.  When we change the way we think, challenges become opportunities, mistakes become lessons and failure becomes a stepping stone for success. 

Cognitive Reappraisal is the key to resilience i.e. when we change the way we think about a negative or painful event, we are able to bounce back to our normal mental and emotional state more quickly and easily. Research has shown that reappraisal increases happiness and resilience and reduces negative emotions and stress

Positive and Negative Reappraisal

There are two types of reappraisal: positive and negative. Positive reappraisal refers to reframing a negative event as more positive. According to Nikki Williamson:

Positive reappraisal is an adaptive strategy — one where you take adversity and spin it so it becomes a source of challenge or inspiration, an opportunity for growth, change and success.

Negative reappraisal refers to reframing a negative event as less negative, which involves thinking of worse things that could have possibly happened but didn’t, making the actual event seem less negative in comparison.

Let me explain with the help of a real life example.

Suppose you have extreme public speaking and stage anxiety and can literally faint on the stage. Then comes the day when you have to present your research in front of an audience of about 100 people. Due to the stage fright, you stammer and stutter a lot, make a lot of weird pauses in your speech, mispronounce many words and look visibly anxious and sweaty. You manage to complete the presentation, but this experience leaves you feeling exhausted, mortified and like a failure.

Now, to change your emotional response to this negative situation and reduce the impact this event could have on your mental health, you could positively reappraise the situation and tell yourself that you had the courage to face that big of an audience, which is commendable, and managed to complete the presentation without fainting or running off the stage. So this experience was a success, not a failure. You could also identify areas of improvement and learn lessons like next time you should spend more time practicing your presentation, ideally in front of a small audience. You could even decide to learn some breathing and relaxation techniques to relax and calm down before your presentation.

Negative appraisal of the same event could mean telling yourself that your presentation was probably not as bad as you think it was. Nobody could see you trembling or sweating because of the distance between the podium and the audience. And that some of the other presenters performed worse than you. And that at least you didn't faint or run off the stage in panic. 

Let's take another example, a more life-changing event this time.

Imagine you get divorced within 3 years of marriage. You are devastated and feel like the world has ended and that your heart would stop any moment. You wasted three years of your life with a loser and now you are back to square one with no money and no job.

To change your emotional response to divorce and to reduce the negative impact of divorce on your mental and physical health, you could use either positive reappraisal or negative reappraisal, or even both.

Using positive reappraisal, you could say that:
·      It was best to come out of this marriage sooner than later
·      I have learned so many important life lessons from my marriage and             divorce
·      I have the life of freedom that I had lost by marrying this person
·      I can now do whatever I want
·      I can make my own decisions
·      I can pursue higher education
·      I can get a job
·      I can travel
·      This is my second chance at life
·      This is my second chance at love
·      I can find a better person this time, someone who truly values me
·      I have the opportunity to turn my life around
·      I can use divorce as the motivation to make my dreams come true

Using negative reappraisal, you could say that:
·      I could have wasted more years with this person
·      I could have had kids with him and ended up divorced with kids
·      I could have fallen into depression and ruined my mental health if I had         continued living with that person
·      My physical health could have been negatively impacted due to my poor         mental health

So, by thinking about all the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead (positive reappraisal) and by imagining more negative outcomes that could have resulted but didn't (negative reappraisal), you make the event of divorce seem less negative and more positive in comparison, like a blessing in disguise and a catalyst for positive change and growth in your life.

How to Practice Cognitive Reappraisal

For trivial and inconsequential events such as traffic jam, being late to work, missing an appointment, etc. you could simply make two columns on a piece of paper; one for positive reappraisal i.e. benefits, opportunities and lessons, and one for negative reappraisal i.e. worse possible outcomes for the same situation.

For major life-changing events such as death, divorce, loss of job, etc., Dr. Tchiki Davis recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
  2. Are you grateful for any part of this situation?
  3. In what ways are you better off than when you started?
  4. What did you learn?
  5. How did you (or might you) grow and develop as a result of this situation?

Actually writing down these questions and their answers (e.g. in your personal transformation journal) is more helpful than just answering them in your mind because you can keep referring to the journal again and again every time you start thinking negatively about that situation.

Cognitive Reappraisal is a skill, one you can build and improve with practice. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, soon becoming an automatic response. By making reappraisal a habit in all kinds of negative circumstances in your life, whether it is death, divorce, breakup, loss of job, a failure or a setback, you can become a more resilient, more optimistic and happier person in general.

Challenges, problems, obstacles, failures, setbacks, losses, mistakes, etc., all serve an important role in our life, even if they seem disruptive at first. They present us with opportunities to learn, change and evolve and make us stronger and wiser.

In the words of Stephen Covey:

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

The key is to use this power to choose our response in moments of choice.

Now, whether you choose to keep dwelling in the past, regret your mistakes, blame people or circumstances for your miseries, overthink about how you could have prevented the event from happening, lose sleep and ruin your mental peace over that event… 

… OR you choose to reappraise the negative situation, change your emotional reaction to it, get over it and bounce back to normal quickly and come out stronger and wiser…

… the choice is yours.