‘Cognitive reappraisal’ is a psychological term for what a lay person might refer to as ‘accentuating the positive': you find a way to perceive a negative situation in a positive light. Now researchers have shown that finding a silver lining in those dark clouds may not always be a good thing after all. In fact, positively reframing a situation may have negative effects on your health.

Context is King

Previous studies consistently provided evidence that cognitive reappraisal is linked with positive outcomes. Thinking positive, then, should work like a charm in all cases. Yet, doubt entered into the hypothesis of Allison Troy, a psychological scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, and her team of researchers. Doesn’t context matter as it does in most areas of life?

To investigate whether thoughtful reappraisal of a negative situation produced uniformly positive effects, Troy and her team recruited 170 people who had recently experienced a stressful life event. Next, each participant took an online survey that was designed to gauge levels of depression and life stress. About one week later, the participants returned to the lab for the second part of the experiment.

In this phase, the participants first watched a neutral film clip meant to produce a non-emotional reaction: a dispassionate baseline emotion. Now, the participants watched three sad film clips in a row. During these clips, randomly assigned participants used cognitive reappraisal techniques so that they might think about the filmed situation “in a more positive light.” After sorting through their results, the researchers discovered something unexpected.

“When stressors are controllable, it seems that cognitive reappraisal ability isn’t just less beneficial, it may be harmful,” Troy explained in a press release.

Specifically, for those participants whose stress was uncontrollable — say, an individual whose spouse is dying of inoperable cancer — the ability to regulate sadness was associated with fewer reported symptoms of depression. But for those participants whose stress was somehow controllable — say, an individual experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance — mental reappraisal was related to higher levels of depression.

“Context is important,” Troy said in the press release. “These results suggest that no emotion regulation strategy is always adaptive. Adaptive emotion regulation likely involves the ability to use a wide variety of strategies in different contexts, rather than relying on just one strategy in all contexts.” Yet, as previous researchers have discovered, thought regulation is no less complicated than emotional regulation.

Ironic Rebound Effect

In a classic 1987 study, researchers from Trinity University and University of Texas chose to explore one of Sigmund Freud’s fundamental insights: that people have unwanted thoughts. To test whether cognitive control is possible, the researchers designed an experiment where participants were asked to suppress any thoughts about white bears while thinking aloud over the course of five minutes. Though prompted not to think about a white bear, the participants seemed to routinely mention the wild animal about once a minute. The researchers deduced that the “paradoxical effect of thought suppression is that it produces a preoccupation with the suppressed thought.”

In short, controlling your thoughts may be as futile as controlling your emotions.

Sources: DN Wegner, DJ Schneider, SR Carter, TL White. Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987.

Troy AS, Shallcross AJ, Mauss IB. A Person-by-Situation Approach to Emotion Regulation. Psychological Science. 2013.