Picture yourself coming home after a two-week vacation and finding that all your houseplants have dried up. You had, however, asked a friend to water the plants. You might start feeling angry now. Why didn’t the friend keep her promise? You think of possible explanations for the situation: maybe she was struggling with personal problems; maybe she lost the front door key. If many such possibilities come to mind, it means that your capacity for cognitive reappraisal is well developed.
Thinking creatively in everyday life
Cognitive reappraisal is how one describes a more positive reinterpretation of stressful emotional events. Led by the biological psychologist Ilona Papousek, a Graz-based team has taken a closer look at the basic neural structure. The point of departure for the ongoing FWF-funded research project was the insight that emotion-regulating cognitive processes are important ingredients of creativity. “Many people may not be aware that creative thinking is also necessary in everyday life. Our minds are constantly creating new ideas that are useful to us – in the context of regulating emotions as well,” says team member Corinna Perchtold-Stefan from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz.
Measuring ability, recognising patterns
One goal of the project was to identify activation patterns in the brain that trigger reappraisals of negative events. A second goal was to investigate whether improvements in the ability to generate reappraisals also result in corresponding changes in the brain. The findings will allow a better evaluation of whether specific brain processes are causally linked to the ability for cognitive reappraisal.
The research activities particularly focused on the importance of reappraisal in individuals suffering from a specific anxiety. “Anxiety about statistics is a common problem among students of psychology and related subjects. This is a major burden and can have dramatic consequences for educational careers,” says Perchtold-Stefan.
Individual training sessions of 30 minutes were held four times a week to train participants in re-evaluating certain situations as creatively and positively as possible. 45 students who were anxious about statistics were divided into three groups: one group worked with statistical situations, one control group worked with general anxiety-inducing situations and a second control group received no training. The students were confronted with specially developed scenarios and received guidance for adopting different perspectives. “The number and quality of the responses allowed us to quantify the ability to cognitively reappraise,” explains Perchtold-Stefan. In addition, neuroscientific methods were used (electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine in detail the temporal and spatial dynamics of the processes involved in the brain. The before-vs-after comparison yielded the first interesting results.
“We found it possible to greatly increase the students’ ability to use cognitive reappraisal. After the training, the participants of the statistics group used reappraisal more often and more successfully in everyday life.” There was also a remarkable change at the level of the brain: “We were able to identify a positive adaptation pattern in the left prefrontal cortex, which indicates an active coping strategy. We also found successful overrides of previously dominant behavioural patterns.” While participants of the general-anxiety group were able to produce more creative ideas after the training, they did not use the technique more in daily life and their brains showed no adaptive patterns.” The training had no effect on anxiety itself, but it did have an effect on coping with anxiety.
Perchtold-Stefan is optimistic about the results having general applicability. “In a pilot study with 73 students we conducted a similar training for anger-inducing situations. In that case, too, the EEG showed positive effects and a greater wealth of ideas. This suggests that everyone can use cognitive reappraisal as a tool for everyday situations.” In further investigations, the researchers became aware of additional factors that play a role: “People who exercise more in their daily lives are more resourceful in positively re-evaluating anxiety. In addition, reappraising stressful situations in a humorous fashion can be particularly useful for one’s well-being.”
New, state-of-the-art approaches
The training successfully linked basic and applied research. The scientific groundwork regarding the ability to cognitively reappraise and the measurement of this ability can help to develop effective tools. “The training has several advantages: it takes only a short time, the inhibition threshold is low and, above all, it is economical. In future, it could be done through apps or online training, for example. It helps people to train abilities that they can immediately put to good use in everyday life,” says Perchtold-Stefan. In the longer term, this could help to improve mental health.
Corinna Perchtold-Stefan studied psychology in Graz. She specialised in biological psychology and focused in particular on the topic of creativity in emotion regulation. Together with principal investigator Ilona Papousek, she investigated the processes underlying cognitive reappraisal in the project “Creative routes to well-being”, which was funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with EUR 390,000. Perchtold-Stefan currently works at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz.
Perchtold-Stefan CM; Papousek I., Rominger C. et al: Humor comprehension and creative cognition: Shared and distinct neurocognitive mechanisms as indicated by EEG alpha activity, in: NeuroImage 2020
Perchtold-Stefan CM, Fink A., Rominger C. et al: More habitual physical activity is linked to the use of specific, more adaptive cognitive reappraisal strategies in dealing with stressful events, in: Stress and Health 2020
Perchtold CM, Weiss EM, Rominger C. et al: Humorous cognitive reappraisal: More benign humour and less “dark” humour is affiliated with more adaptive cognitive reappraisal strategies, in: PLoS One 2019
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