Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive Reappraisal
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Cognitive reappraisal involves cognitively reframing an event, altering the emotional experience of the triggering event. Cognitive reappraisal is a emotional regulation technique often taught in cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapeutic practices.

A component of many theories of emotions is appraisal. We subjectively appraise situations, infusing external stimuli with memories, creating a story. We draw upon similar circumstances from our past to process events in the present. These appraisals (full of meaning) impact emotional reactions.

The cognitive appraisals that are most impactful are the universal meanings we place on our selves. Thoughts such as “I can do nothing right.” These thoughts invite a heavy emotions and a sense of helplessness. These self-directed definitions are key targets in therapy for cognitive reappraisal.

What is Subjective Appraisal?​

An event by itself has little meaning—just an occurrence. Its the value we place on the event that creates meaning. Mostly these appraisals are unconscious events.

For example, we drive past a neighbor who is walking their dog, we smile and wave when they look our direction. Our neighbor, however, doesn’t reciprocate the pleasantries and looks the other way. The event is we waved and they didn’t. Our appraisal follows the event. “They must be mad at me.” Our appraisal ignites deeper emotion than the event. We gave the event meaning and the subjective meaning arouses our system.

Some theories of emotion, such as the James-Lange theory, suggest that the event arouses the system and then we interpret the event based upon the heightened arousal and behavioral reaction. Their famous example is that we don’t experience fear because of an encounter with the bear; we experience fear because we are running from the bear. Their hypothesis is that our behavioral reaction is a fundamental part of the appraisal. 

Perhaps, appraisals dynamically happen before and after initial reactions, constantly retrieving internal and external stimuli and adapting to the changes. Certainly, there must be a reciprocal impact occurring between environmental stimuli and our behavioral reactions. Our reactions impact environments just as environments impact our behaviors.

What is Cognitive Reappraisal?

Cognitive reappraisal is just as the word suggests, reappraising an event, finding alternate meanings that soothe rather than provoke discomforting emotions. Instead of holding to the hurtful interpretation that our beloved neighbor is mad at us, we reappraise the situation, give a new meaning, and sooth our arousal.

“They must not have recognized me.”

This more benign interpretation of the event changes the trajectory of the emotion, down regulating the discomforting reaction, and allowing us to move forward much more objectively.

Benefits of Cognitive Reappraisal

Science has shown that people who frequently use cognitive reappraisal to downregulate discomforting emotions report greater psychological well-being than those who do not use cognitive reappraisal (Southwick, 2018). 

​Reappraisal has been shown to reduce the cortisol response to a stressor compared to emotional suppression (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2010, location 5724). Brain imaging found that cognitive reappraisal shows less amygdala activation than emotional suppression.

Studies found those that suffered trauma and used cognitive reappraisal exhibited less symptoms of PTSD than those that used little or no cognitive reappraisals (Nickerson, et al., 2017).

Addiction research strongly suggests that improving emotional regulation skills (such as cognitive reappraisal) is of integral importance for effective treatment of substance use disorders (Hiebler-Ragger et al., 2021).

Effective Cognitive Reappraisals

Not all cognitive reappraisals are equally effective. Some may even create long term distress. In the aforementioned example of the non-responsive neighbor, our original appraisal of them being angry may, in fact, be correct. If we value their friendship, addressing the rift would be advantageous for future connection and enjoyment of the friendship.

Reappraisals that ignore vital feedback from the environment suppress growth by disconnecting us from reality. Timing of cognitive reappraisals also is important. If we catch strong emotions early, we can intervene before being dragged into the emotional black hole of an emotional melt down.  The emotional process model proposes that “regulation strategies are likely to be more successful and less effortful when they are applied earlier rather than later in the emotion generation process” (Koole, van Dillen, & Sheppes, 2010,  location 898).

Daniel Goleman in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence advises that self-awareness is essential to catch these rascal appraisals early. He explains that if cynical and hostile thoughts are caught as they arise, they can be captured, challenged and reappraised. This works most efficiently “before anger has escalated to rage” (2005, location 1429).

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

~William Shakespeare

Practicing Cognitive Reappraisal  

Cognitive reappraisal is a practice of deliberately alternating attention. Instead of getting stuck on our first appraisal, we deliberately examine alternate explanations. “Reappraisal can be seen as involving a competition among alternate internal representations, in which the executive attention system facilitates selection of a secondary representation over the prepotent representation” (Rothbart, Ellis, & Posner, 2010, location 13,145).

Helpful internal representations are not equally available to everyone. A diverse and complex life leads to a wider range of available appraisals. Conversely, a dangerous and hurtful life narrows appraisals, facilitating quick protective reactions People who are securely attached can reappraise situations in relatively benign terms, symbolically transforming threats into arousing challenges. Their courageous approach is often an expression of a secure childhood that nurtured an optimistic sense of self-efficacy with the favorable ability to transform  undesirable events into controllable, temporary, and context dependent causes (Forsha, Siegel, & Solomon, 2009).

Reappraisals to Soften Overwhelming Threats

If our life experience was overwhelmed by danger, and now we have discovered a place of safety, perhaps, a friend or professional may be needed to discover benign or helpful reappraisals. Initially, cognitive reappraisals may demand heavy cognitive resources, pulling attention away from naturally flowing interpretations while resisting emotional pull of emotion. However, with time, reappraisal can become habitual, operating automatically and unconsciously.

In her article on positive reappraisals and happiness, Tchiki Davis, Ph.D. suggests brainstorming for helpful reappraisals by asking yourself these questions:

  • Were there, or possibly will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
  • Are you grateful for any part of this situation?
  • In what ways are you better off than when you started?
  • What did you learn?
  • How did you (or might you) grow and develop as a result of this situation? (2018)

Stopping and deliberately asking questions is resource demanding, however, cognitive change always requires additional resources at the beginning.

Examples of Cognitive Reappraisals 

Cognitive Reappraisal Examples
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Books On Cognitive Reappraisal:

A Few Words from Psychology Fanatic

Any regulation skill must be practiced and evaluated. Effective skills must be balanced with present moments gains (downgrading of emotional discomfort) against future gains (goal achievement). Reappraisals are vulnerable to some of the same faulty patterns of sacrificing future success for present moment relief. When properly implemented, positive cognitive reappraisals offer many benefits, transforming life into a much more manageable state.

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Davis, Tchiki , Ph.D. (2018) How Positive Reappraisal Can Boost Happiness. Psychology Today. Published 7-26-2018, Accessed 11-2-2021 

Forsha, D., Siegel, D. J., Solomon M.F. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).  W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition. 

Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition

Gollwitzer, P. M., Oettingen, G. (2010). Planning Promotes Goal Striving. In Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister (Eds). The Guilford Press; Second edition

Hiebler-Ragger, M., Perchtold-Stefan, C., Unterrainer, H., Fuchshuber, J., Koschutnig, K., Nausner, L., Kapfhammer, H., Papousek, I., Weiss, E., & Fink, A. (2021). Lower cognitive reappraisal capacity is related to impairments in attachment and personality structure in poly-drug use: an fMRI study. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 15(4), 2187-2198.

Koole, S., van Dillen, L.F., Sheppes, G. (2010). The Self Regulation of Emotion. In Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister (Eds). The Guilford Press; Second edition

Nickerson, A., Garber, B., Liddell, B., Litz, B., Hofmann, S., Asnaani, A., Ahmed, O., Cheung, J., Huynh, L., Pajak, R., & Bryant, R. (2017). Impact of Cognitive Reappraisal on Negative Affect, Heart Rate, and Intrusive Memories in Traumatized Refugees. Clinical Psychological Science, 5(3), 497-512.

Rothbart, K., Ellis, L.K., Posner, L. I. (2010). Temperament and Self Regulation. In Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister (Eds). The Guilford Press; Second edition

Southwick, S. M. (2018) Resilience (The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges). Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition.

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