Justin Selig

The Science of Cognitive Reappraisal

or, How to Manage Your Emotions

Rarely do I come across a concept or idea that makes me stop in my tracks - something truly insightful that makes me want to shout it from the rooftops. This kind of “aha” moment is different for everyone. For me, it’s when I can’t put words to my subjective experience, but when someone else does, a lightbulb goes off and I think, “wow… that’s it.” Like when I come across a phrase which is a beautiful compression of many ideas I’ve synthesized either through reading or lived experience.

I am a huge social and emotional psychology nerd. I devour popular science and psychiatry research papers like its my job. So… excuse me for any gratuitous pop-sci, business-lit, meditation-y references. I wanted to share my discovery of the Cognitive Reappraisal technique for transmuting emotional states. In normal human speak, this means reinterpreting stimuli that would normally result in “negative” emotions as “positive” before the negative emotions take shape. Hopefully, if the reinterpretation works, then the preferred emotional state manifests. It sounds weird, but this is the essence of any modern psychiatric therapy: to hijack the emotion-generating parts of your brain.

The following is a compilation of notes and findings surrounding the topic of Cognitive Reappraisal. The ideas here are distillations of many months of reading and practice. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of these topics, so buyer beware. First, some definitions:

Modeling the Mind

Below I present a model of emotions as best understood by modern psychology. Note that this is one model. Like all models, it is wrong, but useful.

system 1 and 2

Cognitive Reappraisal Explained

Again, one might think of non-clinical, everyday stress, depression, or anxiety as (1) an undesirable interpretation of stimuli resulting in undesirable emotions, and then (2) undesirable responses to those emotions resulting in a harmful story - when we let our minds wander and do as they please without any particular intention. Therefore, the solution to anxiety is to change how we interpret those physical sensations! Simple, right? All you need is the ability to reappraise your emotional stimuli.

So, what exactly is Cognitive Reappraisal? “Cognitive Reappraisal refers to a flexible regulatory strategy that draws on cognitive control and executive functioning to reframe stimuli or situations within the environment to change their meaning and emotional valence.” Simply put, it means responding to stimuli/situations in the way we want.

How do we normally respond to emotional stimuli? It helps to see a diagram to understand the sequence of events:

structural model
Source: Wikipedia: Structural Model of Appraisal

Only the upper half of this diagram is relevant to our discussion of appraisal. Here we see that once there is external stimuli from the environment, we naturally appraise in two steps: primary and secondary appraisal. Primary appraisal consists of two parts, motivational relevance and motivational congruence:

  1. Motivational Relevance: “How relevant is this situation to my needs?” (Impacts emotional intensity).
  2. Motivational Congruence: “Is this situation consistent with my goals?” (Impacts the given emotion experienced).

In secondary appraisal, the following four aspects of the stimuli are evaluated:

  1. Accountability: Who is responsible for this situation?
  2. Coping Potential - Problem Focused: Can I change the situation to make it more congruent with my goals?
  3. Coping Potential - Emotion Focused: Can I adjust to the situation?
  4. Future expectancy of change in motivational congruence: Will this situation change favorably to help me reach my goals?

Note that this appraisal process occurs almost entirely in our unconscious. For a more in-depth explanation of the structural model, see here. To make this model more concrete, here is a mundane example that demonstrates the complexity of this unconscious response:

John and Sally are roommates. Sally finishes baking a delicious pecan pie in the oven, but realizes that she does not have a pair of oven mitts to remove the pie from the oven. She sees that John keeps a pair of oven mitts on the kitchen counter. She reaches for the oven mitts, but John gets angry and yells at her to stop. Sally is startled and becomes scared.

John’s appraisal:

John’s coping strategy in response to the stresssor was a problem-focused strategy to be confrontational. This coping strategy isn’t necessarily “good” or “bad” in itself, but if John cares not to incite emotion in Sally and keep the peace, this strategy is clearly not effective.

Why does John yell? Either John doesn’t realize that Sally will react emotionally (it’s John’s first exposure to this stimulus), or he has not changed his coping mechanism from experiencing similar prior stimuli. In the first case, John is clueless at best and is trying a random strategy. In the second case, John has not changed from a similar experience and his brain is wired to use this response. For instance, perhaps John does not have sufficient emotion-focused coping potential. If he did and John is simply not applying that potential, this is problematic since John has devalued the emotions of others above his own; tolerating some disutility is duly needed.

John’s Internal Story: After John’s appraisal and decision on a coping strategy, John experiences an emotion of anger. John’s rational brain generates a story from this anger such as, “Sally will ruin my oven mitts I care about.” In order to stop Sally from “ruining” the mitts, John applies his problem-focused coping and yells.

Compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Before I keep going, it’s worth noting that everything I’m talking about is a category of emotional self-regulation. The reason I’m writing and (hopefully) you’re reading this is that we feel that learning to shape our everyday emotional experiences and responding constructively to strong emotions is a venture worth pursuing.

Cognitive Reappraisal (CR) can be thought of as a skill - one that you can be either good, mediocre, or bad at. Being good at CR might mean that you can be intentional about the skill, that you can become conscious of the process and intervene as it happens. Being bad at CR might mean that you have no control over the skill - it all occurs unconsciously or little effort is applied to make it conscious.

My first exposure to practices in emotional self-regulation was in college when I saw a therapist and was directed to follow practices in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a commonly prescribed treatment for those facing mild forms of anxiety - this is often the first thing a therapist will do for you as an initial practice. CBT is based around the principle of resolving cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns.

CBT focuses exclusively on counteracting cognitive distortions via rational reevaluation of the distorted thoughts. Clearly, all of this centers around the thoughts themselves, not the initiators of those thoughts. One can think of CBT as intercepting at a much later phase of the structural model, after the emotion has taken shape and the harmful thought processes have spun out of control.

I’m not interested in discussing CBT as a practice here. There is enough literature on CBT as it has become popularized in mainstream apps like Headspace. I’m more interested in processes that lead people to require CBT in the first place. Unlike CBT, CR roots itself in these more fundamental cognitive processes - emotion generation, the initiators of thought.

What they don’t tell you in CBT is that you can go far beyond a state of rational response to distortions. Like any skill, there is infinite upside - you can keep improving and improving beyond good or great. Since there are many dimensions along which someone may improve in a skill, how you “get better” is really up to you. However, in my opinion, improving the skill of emotional self-regulation means being able to intercept earlier and earlier in the structural model of CR. What this means and how you do this is what I’m interested in describing.

To summarize, CR is a more direct response to the underlying emotion. CBT is a response to the story generated way after the emotion.

Cognitive Reappraisal Applied

I’ve been dissatisfied with the lack of instruction in online sources about how to actually employ practices in CR. That’s why I’m writing this essay. As of writing this (July 2020), I have found absolutely no good sources on practices in CR. It’s as if the handful of Western emotional psychology researchers decided that they could stop at the modeling-things phase of research. Psychiatrists who are to put CR into practice must have little to go on and left wondering “how does this actually help me?”

Perhaps this is just me being a detail-oriented engineer… but I WANT TO KNOW MORE! Why do the best sources on CR practices come from sketchy websites trying to sell me e-books, with questionable scientific evidence to back things up? Why is it that we must turn to Eastern meditation practices to derive the pragmatic value of CR?

I think the answer is simply that dealing with emotions is hard. Social science research that attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of particular therapies resembles more a practice in hypothesis-testing than truth-discovery via formal proofs, like in the hard sciences (note: I spent a few years in social science research way back). It is hard to assign rigor to a study when the study itself is based on a “really good guess” at “what might work.”

So… confirmation bias aside, below is a “really good guess” at “what might work” for you based on sources I’ve gathered and my own experience with CR.

Practice: Emotional Digestion Meditation

The following practice is not one of repression, suppression, expression, or releasing. But rather of integration. The difference is subtle. The first four words describe techniques meant to reject, remove, distance from, or otherwise get rid of an emotion. These are often ineffective or provide temporary relief of suffering. Integrating an emotion is rather, a form of acceptance. It is the process of fully experiencing an emotion which dissolves its power over us. The practice is as follows:

  1. Notice tenseness along your central channel: face, shoulders, and belly. Relax those body parts.
  2. Breathe deeply throughout the practice.
  3. Identify where you’re feeling the emotion physically in your body.
  4. Feel the quality of the emotion (its color, temperature, weight, pressure).
  5. Notice if the physical feelings arise internally or if it’s energy coming in externally.
  6. Let the physical feeling flow (or, let yourself experience the feelings fully). Allow yourself to feel the emotion so deeply that it floods over you and you “become” the emotion.
  7. Observe as you breathe and the physical feelings begin to dissolve. The emotion may still be there, but you are now its observer and it has little effect on you. See if you can identify a story in your head that you believe which is causing the emotion.
  8. Once this is done, you may choose to transmute the emotion, described in the practice below.

You may find this practice especially beneficial in moments of intense suffering, after an intense emotion has been generated. However, there is nothing stopping you from meditating in a similar manner on any physical sensations that arise.

Practice: Instant Reappraisal

The above practice does not involve reappraisal. However, being able to reappraise emotions requires the ability to notice emotional bodily sensations. The practice in emotional digestion helps to develop this skill.

If an emotion has already been generated in response to stimuli, but the emotion is undesirable, you may transmute the emotion. This is a misnomer. You are not transmuting the emotion itself. You are digesting the former emotion, then at the same time, if the stimuli still exist, reinterpreting the stimuli in a more conscious manner to introduce preferred new emotions. If you are late in the process and the former emotion has already been solidified, the reinterpretation will be less effective. Both the old and the new emotions may stick around with different valences.

It helps to reappraise the emotional-bodily sensations very quickly. Instantly reappraising bodily sensations means (1) bringing the bodily sensations into your consciousness as they arise, then (2) consciously choosing to interpret those sensations in some way.

Here’s an example: Before giving a presentation on your latest work to your colleagues, you put some finishing touches on a presentation at your desk. When finished, you notice that your palms begin to sweat, your heart begins to race, and your breathing becomes shallow. This is your amygdala taking action, generating a fight or flight response, flooding your body with adrenaline. Most people will unconsciously interpret these sensations as signs of a threat. However, you’ve become aware enough of your body that you choose to interpret those sensations differently. You shout, “I’M EXCITED!” You enter the meeting room, step in front of several colleagues, then go on to give the best speech of your life, free of intense anxiety.

What just happened?

Somewhere in between the environmental stimuli (finishing your presentation right before the meeting) and coping, you hijacked your typically-unconscious anxiety response and replaced it with a feeling of excitement. Once you noticed the physical sensations, your unconscious may have already begun the process of appraising the stimuli as a threat. However, you consciously chose to evaluate the situation differently. Maybe you didn’t totally believe that you were “excited,” but you believed it enough (maybe 10% more than usual) such that the typical stress response wasn’t as intense.

You didn’t control the emotion, you controlled the trajectory of your response to the bodily sensations.

Other examples:

One thing to consider in making Instant Reappraisal effective is the existence of an internal voice. You must respond to sensations by telling yourself “I’m excited” or “I’m [insert self-compassionate, self-forgiving, positive response here].” Once again, this is a balancing act. If you don’t digest the former emotions enough, you may end up with a story in your head which reinforces the emotional suffering. If you don’t at all believe the new interpretation of the stimuli, there’s really no transmuting happening. You must lose yourself to the reframe and embody the new emotion in your thoughts and physical expression.

Concluding Thoughts

Noticing the physical cues before the emotions have a chance to take hold is the basic tenant of CR. This is intuitive. Unfortunately, how you do this and what you call each step along the way are ill-defined, open research areas. That’s why I call CR “pseudoscience.” This is a bit unfair since, like many of the sciences, we usually are only able to explain best-guess models after those models are made (see inexplainable AI). However, the lack of applicable practices in CR makes it all the more a buzzword: all model, no practice.

With this essay, I’ve done my best to synthesize such practices in CR from other sources. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in social psychology, or a nerdy dilettante to employ the tactics I described. You just have to be a bit determined and open to trying some uncomfortable exercises in self-reflection in the pursuit of greater emotional intelligence.

In summary, the basic principle of Cognitive Reappraisal is that of reframing. A finite time exists in between which reframing a physical sensation may be effective in generating preferred emotions. With enough practice, one can hope to strengthen their preferred responses to stimuli to generate preferred emotions… but again, this takes a lot of practice.

One might argue that CR is a tool for controlling emotion, and is therefore unnatural: as emotional creatures, humans should not try to change their emotions and should let them flow freely. If “controlling” is to suppress or replace, then I agree that doing so is not worthwhile. Though, I would posit that the intention of CR is not to control emotions. The intention of CR is to not let our emotions lead to a story that spirals out of control and reinforces the emotions causing thoughts causing suffering. One might think of CR as a way to manage suffering. Emotions must flow freely in order to experience the benefits of CR, but the irrational story causing suffering must not. In that sense, letting emotions flow freely is not only consistent with CR, but is encouraged by the methodologies discussed.

structural model
Source: Reappraisal vs Suppression

Thanks for reading. If you find this useful (or blasphemous), please let me know!


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