How to Overcome Anxiety With Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive Reappraisal and The Mind-Body Connection

Have you ever had your emotions hijacked by a stressful event, which caused you to perform poorly or fail to accomplish something important to you? Maybe you were asked by your manager to give a presentation to a high-profile client or you’re trying to get up the courage to ask that cute guy or girl at the bookstore out for coffee. Whatever it is, having your mind and body turn into a boiling cauldron of anxiety and self-doubt is usually a recipe for disaster. But what if I told you there’s a simple trick you can use to change that situation from one of stress-filled agony to one of energy and enthusiasm? It’s called cognitive reappraisal, and it can transform the way you look at stress forever.

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You've likely read or heard about the psychological research showing that you can alter your mood simply by changing your body posture or facial expression. For example, if you're in a bad mood and want to be happier, forcing yourself to smile has been shown to make you happier. Or if you’re feeling self-conscious and timid, striking a “power pose” changes the chemical balance in your brain, increasing testosterone and reducing cortisol. It seems counterintuitive that your mood can be manipulated by such mechanistic methods, but the research is compelling (although not completely settled).

Similarly, more recent research has shown that the way you interpret your body’s initial signals of stress can significantly affect your cognitive abilities, the emotions you feel and your ability to effectively handle the situation. That process is called cognitive reappraisal, and several of the key studies on this topic have been conducted by professors Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D. of UC San Francisco, Jeremy P. Jamieson, Ph.D. of the University of Rochester and Matthew K. Nock, Ph.D. of Harvard University.

UCSF Professor Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D.
University of Rochester Professor Jeremy P. Jamieson, Ph.D.
Harvard University Professor Matthew K. Nock, Ph.D.

This topic is relevant to your motivation, because much of what you do is determined by the way you feel about it.

Modern-day threats and arousal

When you encounter a situation that your brain interprets as a threat, it activates your sympathetic nervous system (often called your fight-or-flight response). The term threat does not just mean a physical threat (i.e. danger to your life or health). It can mean anything that your brain perceives as having potentially negative consequences for you. By that definition, it would also include anything that threatens your emotional well-being, self image, financial security, or social status.

While this automatic response is commonly associated with danger, it serves an important purpose in preparing your body to act. In other words, stress is not always bad, if you know what to do when you experience it. An excellent book on this topic is The Upside of Stress by psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Arousal ≠ Emotion

In clinical terms, your brain's response to a stressful situation is called arousal. Arousal is a purely physiological process, completely separate from emotion. It's simply the way your brain prepares your body to respond to a situation, such as by releasing or suppressing certain hormones, raising or lowering your heart rate, diverting blood flow to certain organs or focusing your attention on certain things. You become aware of those changes by noticing physical sensations like sweaty palms, a change in your heart rate, or the sensation of warmth in your face.

Because you experience the emotions that result from arousal at virtually the same time as the physical sensations of arousal, most people assume they are one and the same. However, they are in fact separate processes. Emotions are the output of your brain’s cognitive appraisal of you body’s physiological response.

The arousal-appraisal-response process without cognitive reappraisal

Image credit: Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal

In layman’s terms, emotions are what you feel after your brain looks for clues to explain why your body is acting the way it is, and then constructs a story that fits the pattern. You probably aren’t even aware it happens, because the process of cognitive appraisal happens subconsciously and automatically. This separation between arousal and emotion is very important, though, as it's the foundational idea behind cognitive reappraisal. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first we need to take a look at the consequences of arousal, which is what makes cognitive reappraisal so important.

The negative effects of anxiety

When your arousal leads to the emotion of anxiety, it has several negative effects. It reduces your working memory, which negatively affects your decision-making and problem-solving abilities. It reduces your confidence, making you more timid and less likely to seize opportunities. It reduces your cardiac efficiency, which affects your heart’s ability to deliver oxygen to your body. And, as we’ll see, it makes you almost blind to anything other than information related to your [perceived] impending doom.

The inability to see opportunities and positive information is what’s known as attentional bias. It’s a strategy used by your brain to evaluate threats. When you perceive something as a threat, it's in your best interest to gather all of the relevant information related to that threat, so you can appropriately and adequately respond to it.

Why you focus on the negative

From a self-preservation perspective, this bias makes perfect sense. For example, it’s very important that you know whether you should step back from a potentially dangerous animal or whether the more appropriate response is to turn and run. In order to make that determination, your brain diverts all of its attentional resources to finding and evaluating clues relevant to the threat. As a result, it becomes virtually blind to anything else. This survival strategy is not concerned with overlooking information your brain considers irrelevant (in the moment) because the consequence of inadvertently missing a potentially life-saving clue is so high. The obvious and unfortunate consequence of that fixation is that you are unlikely to notice things that would otherwise be construed as opportunities.

In your own life, this attentional bias means that, when your brain triggers a threat response, it causes you to fixate on all of the negative things, including emotional information conveyed by other people, as well as your own thoughts. It even takes that information and extrapolates it to consider other things that could go wrong.

That tendency to imagine and fixate on worst-case scenarios is one of the few drawbacks to having a prefrontal cortex. Its amazing ability to think about the future and plan for different outcomes means that you can also envision all kinds of bad things that might happen, no matter how unlikely. I’m sure you know what it feels like to be pulled into that cycle of negative thoughts. It’s very hard to break out of, which is why it’s so important to recognize the physical cues before the emotional cycle has a chance to really take hold.

How do you handle stress?

The natural response when you feel anxiety welling up is to try to suppress it, but that can be like trying to hold back the tide. Unfortunately, most of the conventional wisdom and even much of the academic research on stress management focuses on reducing your body’s response to the stress. The underlying assumption is essentially that you need to calm down, presumably so you can think clearly and respond in a “better” way.

The problem with this “calm down" approach is that it requires you to shift your nervous system from a high-arousal state back into a low-arousal one, which is usually a losing battle. Even if you could, often you don’t have the time needed to do so and then wait for the adrenaline to clear out of your bloodstream. Not only that, sometimes you need that adrenaline, because it will help you handle whatever challenge you're faced with. You just need a way to minimize the negative effects that are also part of your body’s threat response.

Note About Chronic Stress

Learning how to manipulate your nervous system has tremendous benefits for reducing the effects of chronic stress. It requires learning how to breathe in a certain way to turn your sympathetic nervous system back off after it’s been triggered, which I’ve discussed in another video.

Redirecting your arousal with cognitive reappraisal

A much easier (and more effective) strategy to manage arousal is to simply redirect the resources being mobilized by your brain. In contrast to the “calm down" approach, cognitive reappraisal only requires you to shift your interpretation of your arousal. Rather than allowing your subconscious mind to decide what your racing heartbeat means, you consciously reframe your arousal as something that will help you. This concept is similar to the idea that you are not your thoughts and you can choose whether to believe them, but instead focused on your physical sensations and what they mean.

Psychologist, professor and author Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D. of Northeastern University states that the way you interpret your body’s physiological response to a trigger 

“transforms internal [physiological] states into meaningful psychological states by integrating bodily change with external sensory information and situation-specific knowledge. For example, high arousal might be interpreted as fear or excitement depending on a variety of factors including knowledge of the situation, context, and experience.” [emphasis added]

Northeastern University Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D.

Why cognitive reappraisal works

Cognitive reappraisal works because patterns of physiological responses are not designed to produce one specific emotion. For example, your nervous system's response to a particularly enticing mating “opportunity” is virtually identical to that of danger. In fact, there are multiple studies that show people who have benign interactions (such as answering survey questions) with people of the opposite sex while experiencing situationally-induced arousal interpret that arousal as sexual attraction.

As I mentioned earlier, your mind automatically interprets those signals and assigns meaning to them, which is what produces the emotions you feel. But if there is more than one way to interpret your body’s signals, that means there is more than one emotional response, and no single response is more “correct” than any other. Cognitive reappraisal takes advantage of this fact by allowing you to override the automatic interpretation of your physical sensations so you can instead consciously decide what they mean. This approach, when applied strategically, can leverage a small amount of effort to produce a significantly different result than blindly accepting your default emotional response.

How do you use cognitive reappraisal?

So how do you put this knowledge to use in your life? The answer is surprisingly simple. Research by Harvard University professor Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D. has shown that you can alter your emotional response to situations that normally cause you to feel anxiety by doing one very simple thing.

Harvard University Professor Alison Wood Brooks

When you feel yourself getting aroused, say to yourself “I’m excited”, out loud. It’s important to point out that this tactic only works if you genuinely believe that the arousal you are feeling is at least partially caused by excitement.

To illustrate this point, let’s revisit the examples I started this post with. When your boss asks you to give that presentation, you need to believe that at least part of you is excited by the fact that you have an opportunity to make a good impression on her and the client, and that could lead to some very good things for you. Or, when you feel your body reacting to the thought of asking the cute guy or girl out for coffee, you need to believe that some part of you is excited by the idea that he or she will say yes.

Another important point to understand is that, while cognitive reappraisal gives your mind an alternate but equally plausible version of reality on which to base your emotional response, it does not mean that your anxiety will completely disappear. As Dr. Books described this phenomenon in her research, "imagine that anxiety and excitement are like the bass and treble knobs on a stereo. By reappraising anxiety as excitement, it seems individuals turn the excitement knob up, without necessarily turning the anxiety knob down”. This fact is important to remember so that you don’t create an unrealistic expectation that will doom the process to fail before you start.

The benefits of cognitive reappraisal

When you use cognitive reappraisal to shift your emotional response from anxiety toward excitement, it counteracts or at least minimizes the negative effects mentioned earlier. That means it improves cardiac efficiency which increases oxygen to the brain, and it decreases attentional bias for emotionally negative information. Those changes improve your decision making, pattern detection and problem-solving ability. Being able to think clearly boosts your confidence that you can handle the situation. As an added benefit, cognitive reappraisal also helps your body to recover from the stress more quickly, thereby reducing the effects of chronic stress.

Don’t let the simplicity of this tactic fool you into thinking it can’t work. I can attest from personal experience that it does. What do you have to lose by giving it a try? If you do try it and it doesn’t work on your first attempt, I would encourage you not to dismiss the idea immediately. Instead, ask yourself whether you genuinely believe that you might be excited about the opportunity that your stressful situation presents. If you’re completely honest with yourself and the answer is no, then you have a different challenge to resolve.

If you want to read an entertaining discussion of this topic, check out chapters 7 and 8 of the book You Are Now Less Dumb, by author David McRaney.

You Are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney

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