Change cycle

Turn worry into power with cognitive reappraisal

Have you ever had a high-anxiety task to do, like an exam, giving a speech or getting something just right? Did the anxiety you were feeling impair your ability to do a good job?

If so, that's pretty normal. Anxiety is often associated with degrading our ability to produce our best work. And, if we don't do anything about it, it will do just that.

However, if we re-frame our feelings in a different light, we can see a benefit from them. This is the technique of cognitive reappraisal.

What is it all about?

Anxiety is a feeling. It might start in your stomach, or manifest itself in a racing heart, sweating or feeling uncomfortable.

Whatever symptoms you experience, it is likely that you will find them unpleasant and wish they would go away.

But anxiety is not all bad. It evolved into us for a reason. That reason is that the fight or flight response is useful: it prepares us for battle. In the short term, it heightens our concentration and makes us more focused.

These feelings can be useful, but only if we view them in a positive light.

How do we know this?

One of the best examples is a piece of research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled: "Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE"1.

They recruited a group of students preparing for Graduate Record Examination (GRE). They bought the students in to sit a practice exam and told half of them that it was normal to experience anxiety before taking a test. The other half were told that feelings of anxiety were normal, but also that such feelings an increase their test performance.

The result?

Those who were told that anxiety could improve their test performance did significantly better than those who were not told this.

University library
The study found that students in the reappraisal group did significantly better.

What is more impressive is that the researchers then waited a few months for the students to take their actual GRE to see what the results were. Again, the students who had previously been told anxiety could improve their performance did significantly better.

What does this mean?

As anxiety sufferers, we often have a negative interpretation of any situation. Therefore, when we experience uncomfortable feelings, we assume they are going to have a negative impact on our performance as well.

But that is not what the research shows.

The data suggest that it is only a problem if we believe it is a problem. If we remind ourselves that anxiety improves performance in the short term, it turns into a benefit rather than a disadvantage.

How do I use it?

It's as simple as it sounds: just remind yourself that although anxiety is unpleasant, the short-term benefits it provides can help you, rather than hinder you.

It sounds too good to be true

It does. The researchers deal with this in their paper by pointing out that many interventions are very simple. For example, you can reduce the achievement gap of ethnic minorities by getting them to write a statement of confidence in themselves2.

Similarly, techniques like mindfulness are based on very simple principles, even if they are difficult to do in real life.

The trick is to stick with it. Remember that you are not going to feel any better when you use cognitive reappraisal. It's not about changing the feelings: the benefit comes subconsciously. Making yourself belief it when you still feed bad is tricky. And how do you know if it works? You just have to trust the science.

Is there any counter evidence?

Yes. Research from Franklin & Marshall College points out that cognitive reappraisal is not always beneficial3. It depends on the context and can be less useful when you have control over the situation.

Here is how she explains it:

"for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive. Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation."

Essentially, sometimes it is good to feel bad because it provides us with motivation.

In terms of the exam, for example, we don't set our own exam timetables. So, as we have no control over that, using cognitive reappraisal makes sense.

But, let's say you are a month before the exam and are stressing that you haven't done any revision. If you genuinely haven't done any, that stress could help you find the motivation to do some. In which case, it may not be the best time to do some cognitive reappraisal.


Cognitive reappraisal is about re-framing your worrying to see the potential positive benefits this provides. It sounds too simple to be effective. However, well-controlled lab experiments, backed up by real-world data as well, show that it does have a remarkable effect.

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Published 8 January 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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  1. Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 208-212. ↩︎

  2. Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. science, 313(5791), 1307-1310. ↩︎

  3. Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2013). A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation: Cognitive reappraisal can either help or hurt, depending on the context. Psychological science, 24(12), 2505-2514. ↩︎