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When life gives you lemons: Study suggests the benefits of a positive outlook are context dependent

2771212406_b43d0decc9_zGoing to the dentist can be stressful. As a kid, I survived sitting with a mouthful of metal by staring unblinkingly at a poster of a kitten on my dentist's wall. (I really wanted a kitten.) Now that I'm an adult my view of going to the dentist has changed for the better.

Reframing how we think about a stressful situation, such as going to the dentist, to lessen its emotional impact is called cognitive reappraisal. This strategy is generally thought to be helpful. But research led by Allison Troy, PhD, of Franklin and Marshall College suggests that this approach may not always be beneficial and can exacerbate feelings of depression in certain situations.

From a release:

“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,” Troy notes.

“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.”

In the study (subscription required), the research team recruited 170 people who had recently experienced a stressful life event. Participants were asked to watch a film clip that was neither happy nor sad, followed by three sad film clips. Then a random sample of the participants were asked to try to think about the sad films in a "more positive light."

They found that cognitive reappraisal reduced feelings of sadness for participants who'd recently experienced a stressful event they had no control over, such as the loss of a loved one. Yet, this same approach increased the symptoms of depression for participants who had recently experienced a stressful event they could change.

“These results suggest that no emotion regulation strategy is always adaptive,” Troy states in the press release. But why is context so important? Troy and her colleagues suggest one possible reason.

From the study, published in Psychological Science:

Negative emotions can be adaptive because they motivate people to take action to solve a problem. People who decrease their negative emotions may no longer be motivated to take action, which leads to negative outcomes in situations in which action is needed.

The research team states that more research is needed to fully vet this hypothesis, but point out that their findings could help people choose a productive way to manage their emotions in controllable and uncontrollable contexts. “It may be, for instance, that more active strategies like problem-solving and seeking social support could be particularly beneficial in more controllable contexts,” states Troy.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Reframing reactions could reduce symptoms of social anxiety disorder, Stanford study shows and Using humor to evaluate negative experiences can improve emotional health
Photo by Mathias Erhart

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