What Makes People Feel Better During Tough Times?

What enables people to stay strong during periods of stress and uncertainty? An enormous study conducted across 87 countries and involving 20,000 participants during the pandemic identified a simple coping strategy that helped people feel better: cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal entails reframing how you think about a given situation. For example, some participants in the study were given the following directions:

“This strategy is based on the insight that finding something good in even the most challenging situations can lead to different emotional responses. This means that refocusing on whatever good aspects may be found in a situation can change how you feel about the situation. For example, consider someone who stays at home under lockdown due to COVID-19 and is feeling anxious, sad, or angry. In this case, refocusing might involve realizing that staying at home gives them time to do things that they may not have been able to do before, like reading, painting, and spending time with family.”

The type of cognitive reappraisal above is asking, “What can I learn from this situation?” Other reappraisal techniques include “What would you tell a friend in the same situation?” or “How would your future self describe the current situation?” Cognitive reappraisal enables us to develop a more balanced perspective and to think more flexibly. Rather than tumbling down a rabbit hole of catastrophizing and negative thoughts, it asks us to pause and consider other possible interpretations. Essentially, when we engage in cognitive reappraisal, we are thinking like a detective, generating alternative explanations instead of clinging to a distorted doom and gloom knee-jerk response.

Research shows that the secret sauce of cognitive reappraisal is that it reduces negative emotions and increases positive emotions and, that the presence of positive emotions during trying times is strongly linked with resilience. For example, a study following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 showed that positive emotions were a key active ingredient that enabled resilient individuals to ward off depression.

The idea that it is possible to experience positive emotions in the midst of chronic stress may at first seem counterintuitive but the reality is that many people do experience these emotions even in the most dire of circumstances. Feelings of love, hope, and gratitude can coexist alongside distress, frustration, and boredom. Cognitive reappraisal is a tool that can help you avoid depleting negative spirals, and more importantly, unearth resilience-building uplifting emotions.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman