Emotional Control Cognitive Reappraisal Not Healthy
October 29, 2013

Controlling Emotions May Not Always Be Healthy

Rebekah Eliason for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The ability to regulate and control emotions is a vital part of leading a functional life. However, there is new research suggesting that using the common method known as cognitive reappraisal may be a harmful strategy in situations that are under our control.

Lead researcher of the study Allison Troy of Franklin & Marshall College said, “Context is important, our research is among the first to suggest that cognitive reappraisal may actually have negative effects on psychological health in certain contexts.”

Cognitive reappraisal is a coping mechanism that involves reframing an individual’s thoughts and perspective about a situation in order to change the emotional effect. Previous research has shown this method is psychologically beneficial for people who are highly stressed. Interestingly, Troy and her research team discovered that the ability to control a situation was a key factor determining if cognitive reappraisal was helpful or harmful.

Troy explained, “For someone facing a stressful situation in which they have little control, such as a loved one’s illness, the ability to use reappraisal should be extremely helpful — changing emotions may be one of the only things that he or she can exert some control over to try to cope, but for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive. Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation.”

Researchers gathered a group of people who had all suffered from a recent stressful event. Initially, participants participated in an online survey answering questions designed to measure levels of depression and life stress. Approximately one week later, individuals came into the lab and participated in challenges to assess their cognitive reappraisal ability.

Upon arriving at the lab, participants watched a neutral film clip designed to establish a neural emotional baseline and then were shown three sad film clips. While the clips were playing, they were randomly asked to use cognitive reappraisal strategies to view the clips more positively.

Results of the study showed that the ability to regulate sad feelings using cognitive reappraisal was associated with less depression, but only in situations when stress was uncontrollable, for example, in the instance of an ailing spouse. The participants who had controllable stress showed opposite results. Those with high cognitive reappraisal skills were more likely to have depressive symptoms.

“When stressors are controllable, it seems that cognitive reappraisal ability isn’t just less beneficial, it may be harmful,” Troy said.

These new findings are surprising and conflict with the results of previous research studies showing cognitive reappraisal as always being associated with positive outcomes.

“These results suggest that no emotion regulation strategy is always adaptive,” says Troy. “Adaptive emotion regulation likely involves the ability to use a wide variety of strategies in different contexts, rather than relying on just one strategy in all contexts.”

Because the ability to manage stress is a major psychological behavior predictor, these findings have major implications regarding public health. Also, these findings are important for clinicians who use many existing methods of therapy based on cognitive reappraisal as a method for strengthening emotion regulation.

“Our results suggest that therapeutic interventions that seek to improve emotion regulation ability and teach clients to use particular strategies in context appropriate ways would be particularly beneficial,” says Troy. “It may be, for instance, that more active strategies like problem-solving and seeking social support could be particularly beneficial in more controllable contexts.”

Researchers intend to further their research by also studying emotion regulation methods such as acceptance, distraction and suppression. This study is published in the current edition of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.