Negative thoughts? Learn how to use positive reappraisal

Negative thoughts keeping you trapped in a situation? We take a look at how to use positive reappraisal

The so-called baggage of the past that we seem to take with us cannot ever be truly released from our psyches, but it needn’t define who we are if we learn to accept the past and reappraise its influence on us. Reappraisal is an emotion-regulation strategy that involves changing your emotional response by reinterpreting the meaning of whatever has occurred. Defined as the use of deliberate and effortful processes to change an enduring and negative emotional response, reappraisal tries to untie us from the often debilitating emotions that can accompany a range of life events.

It’s a process that involves recognising the negative feelings you have around an event or series of events, and then reinterpreting the situation to reduce the severity of those negative feelings. By changing your negative attitude to a more positive one, you can begin to modify the influence the event has had and is continuing to have on your life.

Instead of defining you, the moment can be used for information, for planning a way forward, for recognising what may come from such an experience in terms of enhancing who you are and what you do.

It’s important to note that reappraisal isn’t about creating a false memory or abdicating your responsibility for what has occurred. Instead, it’s about rethinking your response so it becomes productive rather than destructive. For example, reimagining a failure, not as the end of your hopes and dreams or as a demonstration of worthlessness but as an opportunity or a challenge, is a way in which reappraisal can help you move forward rather than stay stuck in the past.

New neuropsychological research suggests you can reshape how you emotionally process negative memories through simple instruction, regardless of whether the moment was a major or minor event in your life. For those with traumatic memories, such as victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, the research offers hope for new kinds of therapies and a way people can release themselves, as much as is possible, from the emotion attached to horrific events.

The research proposes that when recalling an emotional memory that is predominantly and hauntingly negative, you can change the intensity of the emotion attached to it, and even the type of emotion itself, through cognitive training. The approach is based on both mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy and draws on the neuroscience of the ways the brain wires memories and emotions together.

Positive reappraisal

This practice is called positive reappraisal and it’s defined as being an active coping strategy rather than a defence mechanism and is a critical part of meaning-based coping. Meaning-based coping refers to a process of drawing on positive emotions during or after a stressful event to help you find value and purpose in what has happened. Depending on the kind of event experienced, this could mean recognising your ability and strength in surviving, or learning from a mistake.

While the idea might be called positive reappraisal, it’s not about banishing negative emotions completely. Without the experience of negative emotions we cannot know what is going wrong in life, so while the feeling is still experienced, the idea is it does not overwhelm you and impact on the way you function over the long term. As such, instead of defining you, the moment can be used for information, for planning a way forward, for recognising what may come from such an experience in terms of enhancing who you are and what you do.

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.

Importantly, reappraisal isn’t about memory suppression or the containing or denying of the range of emotions felt at the time. Instead, it allows you to re-engage with the stressor event so you can reconsider your overall response to it. For example, a health crisis might inspire you to positively reappraise the event as an opportunity to change your lifestyle, while being fired from your job may be reappraised through a lens of new beginnings of an opportunity to pursue a different path.

Neither reappraisal denies the event or the fear and distress that are our natural initial responses, but they do offer a way past those potentially debilitating feelings into a place of opportunity and change. As such, 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. In doing so, you can help to increase your sense of control and build resilience.

So how do you possibly reappraise an event or events that have haunted you for years? That have kept you afraid of failing, afraid of putting yourself out there, of taking risks with career, love or self? Like all change, reappraisal is a process where we need to engage in a series of steps to achieve our goals. As mentioned, the two over-arching steps are to recognise the negative feelings you have around an event or series of events, and then reinterpret the situation to reduce the severity of the negative feelings.

  1. Recognition

Recognition is the first step. It involves identifying the episodes in your life that have created the negative response that has kept you from achieving your personal, social or professional goals. Sometimes, these past events are obvious and quite present in your memory stream. However, the kinds of events that keep us stuck can be surprising in their lack of vividness because the connections between the triggering event and our subsequent behaviours or fears have become blurred with the retriggering of emotions across of a range of moments and memories.

This phenomenon occurs because of the way these negative feelings are formed and reformed, extending themselves to situations not identical to the original events or series of events. Negative feelings can easily spread, especially if they impact on your sense of self-worth, so it can be tricky to identify the exact moment the spiral began. This occurs because, when we make memories, we link events to emotions and, the more we link them, the stronger the emotions attached to that event, or interpretation of the event, become.

Additionally, each time a memory is recalled we remake that memory to be influenced by what we are currently feeling and doing. So if you are feeling vulnerable you may recall a memory where the same or similar feelings were in place, even though the situation was slightly or even very different. Unfortunately, our brains spread the links between negative feelings and situations, reinforcing them as they go, without taking into account different scenarios or how irrational or tenuous the connections might be.So, the more you ruminate on the failure, embarrassment or distress that accompanied a situation, or the more you recall that feeling, the more you believe the interpretation. That is, in the above example, that you’re a failure, not good at things or incapable. This phenomenon can then transform into a self-perpetuating belief so that, when faced with a similar situation, you don’t believe you can succeed and subconsciously sabotage yourself by not trying, preparing or even participating.

While negative emotions are just as important as positive emotions, in that they provide you with information about what is going right and wrong in your world, what’s important to you and when changes need to be made, they can become too generalised. For example, failing a test you were expecting to pass does not mean you always fail and will always fail because you are a failure, but it is astonishing just how quickly our minds can take us down that path.

If we have the opportunity to convince ourselves that this internal diatribe is true we can begin to back away from situations that require us to perform in some way: to pass a test or prove we can do something. We can begin to live up to our low expectations by cutting ourselves off from opportunities to succeed, achieve our goals or follow our dreams. Through recognition we can begin to break down this faulty thinking by linking negative feelings to negative beliefs about ourselves, situations and other people.

  1. Reappraisal

Thankfully, the connections your brain has made can be undone or at least modified and this is where the process of reappraisal occurs. Once you have identified negative feelings associated with certain situations, tasks or even people, you can begin the process of rethinking how that event should or could make you feel. Instead of simply being affected by an event, you can also become empowered.

Reappraisal, then, has two parts associated with it: challenging the thoughts and feelings associated with past events and current situations; and rethinking the way you interpret the consequences of those events. This is because with negative feelings often comes a range of defeatist thoughts that make it difficult to break through the weight of emotion to be able to rethink its influence on you. When you challenge these thoughts and halt the downward spiral that often comes with them, you can open up a space for re-evaluation and metamorphosis.

Challenging your negative feelings and thoughts is about becoming self-aware in the moments where memories deplete you. It’s about noticing the thoughts that feed your negative feelings, growing them to the point of giving up, retreating or freezing. Depending on the context, these thoughts might include: “I’ll always be alone now; who could possibly love me?” “I’ll never get another job; I’m too stupid to succeed.” “Nothing ever works out my way; everyone thinks I’m a fool.” Breaking into these thoughts and challenging their validity not only gives you a chance to create more accurate accounts for what happened, but in other situations it also releases you from the burden of, “What if?”

You can learn to not fear these events but to see them as a way to incorporate new knowledge about yourself, others and your world.

Breaking through and challenging negative feelings provides the foundation on which you can reappraise the moment. For example, if you’ve challenged negative thoughts and realised that part of why you failed at something was because your expectations were too high, you can reappraise the past by deciding that, to succeed, you could be more realistic about what can be achieved and in what time frame. Alternatively, you might use the experience to better plan for certain situations or you might decide you need to become more in tune with your strengths and your weaknesses so you maximise your chances of success by managing them both more appropriately.

With regards to people in your life with whom your experiences have created a feeling of dread or anxiety when dealing with them, or people who represent them — say those in positions of power — the action of reappraisal is still the same. If there’s someone at work or in your personal circle who always pushes your buttons, you might reappraise the situation as an opportunity to practise the kind of mindfulness techniques that don’t let them get under your skin, allowing you to maintain control of your thoughts and feelings. Or, if you’ve realised your dread comes from being too passive and letting people walk all over you, it may be a chance for you to learn to be more assertive in your relationships, to insist on your boundaries being respected and your perspective considered.

Once you start to use reappraisal it can become a habit in all kinds of situations where negative feelings arise, thus becoming an automatic response. Thus you build resilience, become more able to self-regulate, more optimistic that negative and distressing situations are moments that help you to learn and evolve, and that they have a legitimate role in your life, despite the discomfort they cause. You can learn to not fear these events but to see them as a way to incorporate new knowledge about yourself, others and your world.

Nikki Williamson

Nikki Williamson

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