Let’s say you were recently in a tragic car accident and lost the use of one of your legs. How do you deal with the situation? Do you constantly rehearse the accident and think about how different your life is now? Do you try to accept your new lifestyle? Do you try to find meaning in the tragedy? Which path you choose will help determine how much stress you experience.
One study instructed participants to think about a stressful event (most chose the death of a loved one or a fight) for 3 minutes. Afterwards participants were given 5 minutes to use 1 of 4 assigned coping strategies: rumination, acceptance, reappraisal or distancing.
- Rumination means repeatedly thinking about the causes, consequences and implications of negative events. In the experiment, participants were instructed to “try to think about the causes of that stressful event over and over again, about the consequences, and about how the event moves you.”
- Acceptance, a core element of mindfulness meditation, means being aware of your thoughts and feelings, and accepting their presence without judging them. In the acceptance group, participants were instructed to “try to allow all thoughts about the stressful event, without thinking that a thought is bad or good. Accept that you have them, and see the thought as only a thought. Try to notice that your thoughts come and go.”
- Reappraisal means reinterpreting a negative event in a positive manner and trying to find opportunities for learning and growth. The reappraisal group was instructed to “try to think about the positive sides of the stressful event. Examine what you have learned, and how it has made you stronger.”
- Distancing means looking at a negative event objectively through a third-person perspective. The distancing group was instructed to “try to describe the stressful event for yourself from beginning to end, but from a distance, as if you are a journalist, or a filmmaker, or a photographer.”
Positive and negative affect were measured before the stressful event, right after the stressful event, after the coping strategy was used and after participants thought about their favorite piece of music at the end of the study. The researchers found that reappraisal significantly reduced negative affect and increased positive affect compared to the other coping strategies. (Reappraisal is in green in the charts below)
Another study found that the benefits of reappraisal can be seen directly in the brain. Here’s how those researchers describe reappraisal working:
Emotions begin with the individual perceiving a stimulus within a context and attending to its features. Next, the individual appraises a stimulus’s emotional significance, and this triggers an affective, physiological and behavioral response… [Reappraisal] targets the appraisal stage and involves changing one’s interpretations or appraisals of affective stimuli.
Other studies also show that reappraisal can also work longer term. For example, women on a waiting list for a medical procedure had significantly lower anxiety when practicing reappraisal.
Reappraisal is an effective way to cope with stress. If you lost the use of a leg (as we brought up in the introduction), reappraising the situation would be believing that it happened for a reason. “Now I can use this experience to educate others on the consequences of drinking and driving and save a lot of lives as a result.”
Buhle, Jason T., et al. “Cognitive reappraisal of emotion: a meta-analysis of human neuroimaging studies.” Cerebral Cortex 24.11 (2014): 2981-2990.
Ockhuijsen, Henrietta, et al. “Clarifying the benefits of the positive reappraisal coping intervention for women waiting for the outcome of IVF.” Human Reproduction 29.12 (2014): 2712-2718.
Rood, Lea, et al. “The effects of experimentally induced rumination, positive reappraisal, acceptance, and distancing when thinking about a stressful event on affect states in adolescents.” Journal of abnormal child psychology 40.1 (2012): 73-84.