Cognitive Reappraisal Can Backfire When Stressors Are Within Our Control: Study

11/12/2013 02:11 pm ET

Cognitive reappraisal -- an emotional regulation technique -- can be a useful strategy for the super-stressed. It involves reshaping how you think about certain situations so that they take less of a toll on your emotions. But according to a new study, it might actually backfire when applied to the wrong situations.

Researchers from Franklin & Marshall College found that this technique can increase negative emotions when it's used for situations that are within our control.

"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," study researcher Allison Troy explained in a statement. "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."

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, 170 study participants who had recently undergone a major stressful event answered a survey measuring depression and life stress levels. Then, after about a week, they participated in an experiment where they had to watch a film clip that elicited neutral emotions, followed by three film clips that elicited sad emotions. Some study participants were randomly told to use cognitive reappraisal to lessen the negativity of the sad film clips, and instead see them "in a more positive light."

Using cognitive reappraisal did seem to decrease depressive symptoms from watching the sad film clips -- but not for all the study participants. It only worked for those who had just experienced a major life stressor that was out of their control. People who had experienced a major life stressor within their control actually seemed to be more depressed after employing the cognitive reappraisal strategies while watching the sad film clips.

"These results suggest that no emotion regulation strategy is always adaptive," Troy added in the statement. "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."

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