Cognitive Appraisal and Reappraisal Skills

Cognitive appraisal and reappraisal are the ways our brains interpret events. The skills learned in this section are designed to help you understand how and why our brains interpret events the way that they do and teach you to retrain your brain to respond to events with more flexibility and have more balanced thoughts.  

Appraisals are interpretations or “automatic thoughts” - in effect, it's the way you interpret aspects of a situation. 

What influences your appraisals?

  • How much importance or meaning you assign to the event or situation 
  • What you decide to focus on in a given situation 
  • May incorporate experiences from the past to help with current appraisals  

The body responds as if the appraisal is accurate/the worry is happening. 

This is useful because it helps us to filter our experience/focus on salient information so that we can attend to a potential threat and/or respond quickly/efficiently. These concepts can be used to predict what may happen in the future. 

This is problematic because sometimes we get it wrong. 

  • Negative bias: we register negative stimuli more readily than positive and tend to dwell on it. 
  • Development of Thinking Traps: When our appraisals are used repeatedly and we exclude others as a result, these thoughts and styles of thinking become “TRAPS." This feeds negative emotional patterns such as anxiety and depression. Thinking traps are unhelpful thinking patterns (see handout).  

Cognitive reappraisal: Involves thinking flexibly, allowing for other interpretations. There are 4 methods to this:

  • “Pulling out” Thinking Traps and seeing what’s left. What can you say for certain about the situation? Develop a balanced thought based on facts only.
  • What is the wrost that could happen?
    • De-catastrophizing: If the worst happened, how would you cope with it.
    • Finish the story: what would happen then, and then what, etc.  
  • Instead of black and white thinking, what might a “gray” alternative be (see the Finding Alternative Thoughts handout) 
  • Evaluating evidence: A means of recognizing more realistic and evidence-based interpretations of an emotional situation  

The goal is that repeated practice of re-appraisal helps to break the existing appraisal style and the habitual cycle of emotions. It decreases intensity and increases manageability. These new learnings rewire neural pathways, decreasing negativity bias. 

General strategies for reappraisal 

  • Use Emotional awareness. Hit the STOP button in order to… 
    • Consider your automatic appraisal as one possible option (may or may not be important) 
    • Consider the role of your common thinking traps- are you using them? 
    • Don’t blame yourself for having thinking traps. Now you know there’s a reason your brain is doing this and remind yourself that you’re working on it.
  • Gently challenge yourself to consider other possible interpretations.
  • Don’t try to “stop your thoughts." Automatic appraisals are just that, automatic. The more you try to control them, the more rigid you will become (e.g., don’t think about vanilla ice cream). Allow the thoughts to enter and pass through your mind.

What if the modified/balanced thought is still distressing? Sometimes we have to tolerate painful thoughts and the emotions that come with them. Visit distress tolerance for more details.

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