Everyone feels negative emotions from time to time. There’s no getting around it. It’s what makes us human. 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 actually get in our way. Sadness can turn into depression. Anxiety can trigger panic. Anger at a fever-pitch can result in hurt feelings. Because this higher intensity emotion can cause a lot of problems, it can be helpful for having a way of modulating it so it doesn’t rise to the level of being a problem.
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 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.
One way to calm the fire of emotions down is through cognitive reappraisal (Barlow et al., 2011). This is merely the act of recognizing the pattern your thoughts have fallen into, and changing that pattern. By doing this, the emotions you are experiencing lose a bit of their intensity, and allow for you to more productively deal with whatever it is that got you triggered in the first place. 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 prone to intense anger, your anger may run away with you, causing you to be fuming and ruin your time at the party once you arrive.
Now take a moment to consider another perspective you might have in this situation.
Other perspectives 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. 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 keep an even keel.
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 appraising the situation. Moreover, they would probably be more helpful in allowing for us to keep our head while we try to find our way to the party. While running over these new thoughts, you will 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, considering different perspectives, and thinking in a way that keeps a lid on your level of emotional distress. The point is to allow other ways of making sense of a situation to 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.
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