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How you can reframe negative emotions

Updated: Dec 1, 2023



What if you could reduce your stress and anxiety when dealing with difficult life situations by changing the way you think about the issue that is causing those negative feelings?


Challenges are sometimes inescapable, but there is a set of questions drawn from the psychological discipline known as cognitive reframing, that has been shown to reduce anxiety, manage stress, and positively change attitudes.


While some problems are truly bad, how you think about a problem often impacts your emotional reaction (such as the anxiety you experience), and therefore, your framing around a problem can help reduce it from harming you any more than it needs to.


For instance, suppose that you don't spend enough time on a work assignment, and you hand in sloppy work. Experiencing some anxiety in that situation may be healthy, but if you're worried about it all the time and having trouble sleeping, that likely is making the situation worse rather than better.


The ideal is to have enough anxiety to motivate yourself to do better, but not so much that it becomes an impairment to you.


The checklist of questions below is designed to help you helpfully reframe an unpleasant situation.


Please keep in mind that you may want to seek professional help if the situation is especially difficult or if you don't think you can handle it on your own.


1️⃣ What's one way to summarize the problem?


Concisely summarizing a problem can reduce the tendency towards catastrophizing (that’s when you become preoccupied with the worst possible outcomes rather than keeping in mind realistically how bad a situation is likely to be).


For instance, you might summarize a recent fight like this: “My partner isn't speaking to me after we had a big argument, and I'm scared they might leave me."


2️⃣ What's another (potentially more helpful) way of looking at your problem?


It’s easy to fixate on a specific explanation for a problem that pins blame entirely on yourself or entirely on others. However, almost all situations are complex enough to have multiple causes and multiple potential outcomes.


In particular, considering more productive alternative explanations and outcomes may reduce your worries and fears by demonstrating that there are other framings beyond your original framing.


For instance, perhaps you originally viewed the fight with your partner through this lens: "The only reason they wouldn't be talking to me now is if they no longer loved me and were planning to leave me."


After considering another potentially helpful way of looking at the problem, you might frame it like this: “My partner might also be feeling anxious about our argument, making it harder for them to talk to me about it. Taking a little space to reflect on what was said can help us better understand each other's point of view and may strengthen our relationship. I can get started now thinking about what I want to say to them when we do talk.”


3️⃣ What would you say to a friend who is in the same situation as you are?


When a friend tells you about a mistake they've made, chances are you tend to be understanding and find positives wherever possible. But many people don't afford this same generosity to themselves.


Our inner critics are often harsh, judgemental, and quick to see the worst in our actions. This approach is often counterproductive. By approaching your problem as though you were giving advice to a friend, you can find a more helpful and empowering view of the situation.


For instance, “Disagreements are normal and happen even in the best relationships. I’m going to think about all the ways my partner and I are great together, and be sure to communicate why I think we are great together when we speak next..”


If you would like some extra help with this step, we suggest you try our tool about Practicing Self-Compassion.


4️⃣ Last time you faced a similar problem, or a problem of similar difficulty, how did you manage to overcome it?


When you’re caught up in a problem, it is easy to forget what you have accomplished in the past. We all have experiences of overcoming adversity and finding solutions to a problem that seemed beyond us.


Recalling these moments of success can be a much-needed confidence boost when confronting something difficult in the here and now, whilst helping to identify previous strategies you used that may be useful now.


For instance, “My partner and I have had bad arguments before but always come to a resolution in the end. Last time, we took a day to cool off to give each other space to think about what's gone wrong, then we planned a time to talk the problem through at a time when neither of us would be stressed about work. So that might be a good idea to do again.”


5️⃣ What is an element of your current situation that you cannot change?


Every situation is a mix of things that you can and cannot change. Identifying what you cannot control can allow you to let go of some worry and negativity since there is nothing you can do to affect those parts of your situation.


For instance, in this situation, you might remind yourself: “I can't change what I said as that's in the past.”


6️⃣ What is one part of your current situation that you can change?


Focusing on what you can control can provide clarity in your efforts to improve the situation.


For instance, in this situation you might say this to yourself: "I can choose to apologize to my partner when we next speak, and start an honest conversation about what happened, giving them space to explain their perspective."


7️⃣ Are there other benefits or opportunities that your problem may bring?


Mamy negative events have a silver lining, presenting some level of opportunity or growth.


Recognizing the benefits of a difficult situation can make it somewhat easier to bear. Though it’s not always easy, finding the positive potential in a problem may quickly y change how you view it.


For instance, in this situation you might say this to yourself: “Resolving our argument is a chance for me to develop my courage in confronting a difficult situation and an opportunity to practice my sense of compassion. It is also a chance for us to get better at resolving arguments with each other.”

 

So, to recap: when you are experiencing negative emotions that you are struggling to work through, you might benefit from cognitive reframing, which you can try by answering the questions in this checklist:


  • What's a short summary of the problem?

  • What's another potentially more helpful way of looking at this problem?

  • What would you say to a friend who is in the same situation as you are?

  • Last time you faced a similar problem, or a problem of similar difficulty, how did you manage to overcome it?

  • What is an element of your current situation that you cannot change?

  • What is one part of your current situation that you can change?

  • Are there other benefits or opportunities that your problem may bring?


If you have an extra 15 minutes today and have been dealing with a stressful situation, we encourage you to try our Reframing Negative Emotions tool, made by Ben Williamson, as part of our 2020 Micro Grants Program. It will guide you through questions similar to those we presented here and give you the opportunity to write your own answers.



With every problem and difficulty, we have some choice in how we respond. It is often possible to reduce our negative emotions and find the impetus for positive action by reframing how we view the issue at hand.


It's not easy, but given the potential benefits, it may be worth the effort.


"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."


Reinhold Niebuhr



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