By taking the approach that it is not about you – that an angry person is just having a bad day — you may be able to stave off bad feelings and emotional stress. It’s a common strategy.
For example, you might tell yourself that they’ve probably just lost their dog or gotten a cancer diagnosis and are taking it out on you. This technique is termed emotional reappraisal, a common strategy used in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
A new study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, reviews the concept and suggests areas for future investigation.
Stanford researchers led by Jens Blechert wanted to study the efficiency and speed of reappraising emotions.
Emotions develop in the front part of the brain and move backward in the brain as they are processed. On the other hand, the emotional reappraisal process begins in the back of the brain and moves forward.
“You can see this as a kind of race between the emotional information and the reappraisal information in the brain: Emotional processing proceeds from the back to the front of the brain, and the reappraisal is generated in the front of the brain and proceeds toward the back of the brain where it modifies emotional processing,” Blechert said.
Blechert and his colleagues came up with two experiments to study this process. Participants were shown several series of faces and tested on their reactions.
For example, in one set, they were told to consider that the people they’d seen had had a bad day, but it’s nothing to do you with you.
“So we trained the participants a little bit, not to take this emotion personally, but directed at someone else,” Blechert said.
They found that once people had adjusted their attitude toward someone, they weren’t disturbed by that person’s angry face the next time it appeared.
On the other hand, when participants were told to just feel the emotions brought on by an angry face, they continued to be upset by that face.
A different study used an intriguing approach as researchers recorded electrical brain activity from the scalp and found that reappraising wiped out the signals of the negative emotions people felt when they just looked at the faces.
The findings are significant as psychologists used to think that people had to feel the negative emotion, and then get rid of it.
If these findings are confirmed, the process is actually a much faster and deeper process – given that the people are prepared.
“If you’re trained with reappraisal, and you know your boss is frequently in a bad mood, you can prepare yourself to go into a meeting,” said Blechert. “He can scream and yell and shout but there’ll be nothing [that you feel].”
Continued testing of this hypothesis is required as this study only looked at still pictures of angry faces. In his next experiment, Blechert would like to test how people respond to a video of someone yelling at them.