Many of us, often daily, find ourselves in situations that generate negative emotions within us. Chronic negative emotions, over time, can lead to mental and physical health issues like depression, anxiety, cancer, fibromyalgia, and even psoriasis. Studies have shown that reframing your outlook on stressful situations can lead to greater happiness and improved health. But how do you get there?
One answer is positive reappraisal – taking a negative or stressful life event and finding the silver lining within it. Positive reappraisal has been shown to elevate happiness, improve overall mood, and decrease stress. With life being as challenging as it is, who could not benefit from having such a tool in their coping toolbox?
Let’s take a look at positive reappraisal and how you can apply it to your life.
Positive Reappraisal As A Coping Tool Against Stressful Life Events
Your transmission breaks down in the middle of traffic resulting in a $1,600 repair bill when money is tight. You’ve just come through a six-month divorce battle and you are broke. Or, you have just been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis is unknown. These are all examples of stressful life events (SLE), events that are unexpected, significant, and negative. SLEs can cause a number of debilitating physical and psychological disorders, even prolong or intensify them, causing decreased well-being.
Stressful life events can generate a barrage of predominately negative emotions attacking our psyche: anger, intense irritation, hostility, hopelessness, and frustration, to name a few. This happens when we focus only on the negative outcomes of the stressful event, letting them overwhelm our thoughts and feelings.
In order to diminish or altogether banish these negative emotions, you need a coping tool to regulate these emotions. Enter positive reappraisal, an emotion-regulation strategy by which stressful events are reframed as harmless, valuable, or even beneficial.
Positive reappraisal is finding the silver lining in any given stressful situation. It is an active coping strategy that allows you to rethink your response to an event, giving a new meaning to it, making it productive rather than destructive. It is important to note that positive reappraisal is not the power of positive thinking or creating a false memory. Positive reappraisal is a reality-based method of drawing on positive emotions to give value and purpose to what happened, like finding strength in your ability to have survived a trauma, or learning from a mistake. It is a shift in your mental process, not in the contents of the stressful life event.
As an example, instead of looking at the transmission repair incident from above as an untimely hit to your bank account and the stress of waiting on a tow truck in the middle of traffic, you can reframe your viewpoint to look at the repair saving you from breaking down on your vacation road trip, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere at night. Or, looking at being fired from your job as an opportunity to pursue a different path or career.
Positive reappraisal is not a denial of the fear or distress that you felt during the stressful life event. Rather, it is a strategy that allows you to take adversity and spin it to become an opportunity for growth, challenging or inspiring you to change and succeed.
Applying Positive Reappraisal to Your Life
So, how do you possibly reappraise an event or events, either recent or ages ago, that are haunting you? These events that cloud your thoughts, darken your emotions, or fill you with the fear of failure? Like all change, positive reappraisal is a process where you apply a series of steps to create a positive outcome. Two important steps in this process are recognition and reinterpretation.
First, you have to recognize or identify the stressful life events that created negative responses. Negative feelings that first formed from SLEs can reform when other similar events happen in your life, causing you to form self-perpetuating beliefs, like being a failure in life or incapable of performing well. Finding the trigger event and the negative responses are key to reframing negative beliefs.
Secondly, you reappraise these events by challenging the thoughts and feelings you formed at the time and rethinking the way you interpret the consequences of those events. For instance, if you failed at something and you formed a false belief that you will never amount to anything, you might find that you had initially set your expectations too high. You can reappraise that event to form more realistic expectations of yourself, maximizing the chances of future success by being more aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
When starting out using positive reappraisal, work with smaller, less-traumatic recent events first. (You will need practice applying this strategy to smaller events before tackling the larger, more traumatic events in your life.) Choose an event that was not extremely negative, like a small disagreement with a loved one. Next, write down some positive reappraisals, or silver linings, in the event. Think benefits, or how the situation could have been worse, or look at the positive results that could come forth from this situation in the future.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when trying to reframe or reappraise a stressful life event:
- Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this event?
- In what ways are you better off now than when you started?
- What did you learn or come to understand?
- How did you grow and develop from the stressful life event?
- Are you grateful for any part of the event?
Once you are able to reappraise small stressful life events, you will be able to use this coping strategy in all kinds of situations where negative feelings arise. Positive reappraisal will help you self-regulate your emotions, build resilience, and reframe stressful life events as moments in your life that help you to learn, grow and change. You will learn not to fear SLEs, but see them as a way to gain knowledge of yourself, of those in your community, and the world at large. Positive reappraisal will help to elevate your happiness and improve your mood, making you better able to withstand what life throws at you.