How to Take Control When You’re Emotionally Overwhelmed
How ‘cognitive reframing’ can help you through the coronavirus pandemic
Strong emotions are often compared to tempests or torrents — as though they were powerful forces that are largely out of a person’s control. But experts who study human emotion say that this is wrong. People are not the helpless victims of their emotions; to a great extent, they can control both the feelings they experience and also the intensity of those feelings — whether they’re dealing with a volatile co-worker or a pandemic.
“Most people walk around with a pretty dim idea of what emotions are, and an even dimmer idea of what they can do with them,” says James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. “But if we look at how emotions arise, we can identify points at which people can interfere with or modify that process.”
Gross explains that fear, concern, joy, and other feelings are the products of thoughts, which people have in response to the stuff that occupies their attention. Attention, meanwhile, is largely dictated by the situations in which people find themselves. To summarize: situations direct attention, which leads to thinking and, finally, to feeling.
Understanding this sequence is helpful, he says, because it allows a person to take steps to either avoid the situations that give rise to unhelpful emotions or to adjust those emotions once they’ve formed. And one of the most effective and evidence-backed ways for people to adjust their emotions is a technique that psychologists call cognitive reframing — also known as cognitive restructuring or reappraisal.
Cognitive reframing is a major component of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — now widely considered the gold standard in psychotherapy — and it involves challenging and changing the underlying thoughts that give rise to unhelpful emotions.
“The premise behind cognitive reframing is that it’s not really the things that happen in life that drive our emotions and behaviors, it’s the way we think about those…