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I’m Overwhelmed. What Can I Do?

Nov. 15, 2022 Psychology Today

Imagine you’re organizing your first dinner party: You spent all day cooking, and you’re excited for your five best friends to come over so you can all catch up on each other’s lives. The table is set, the candles are burning, and the champagne is about to be popped. Then, you get a text: Two of your best friends can’t make it last minute. You feel disappointed and sad.

How do you respond to these negative feelings? It turns out, how you respond to them (and whether you respond in a flexible way, that best fits the needs of the situation) can affect your mental health.

Do you try to see the situation more positively, by focusing on feeling grateful for your friends who were able to make it? If so, you are engaging in cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing something in a more positive way.

Do you ignore, or suppress, those feelings of sadness? This is referred to as emotional suppression.

Do you think about why two of your best friends weren’t able to make it, over and over again? This is called rumination.

Cognitive reappraisal, emotional suppression, and rumination are just a few examples of emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation strategies refer to techniques that people use to manage their emotions. Research shows that certain emotion regulation strategies may benefit your mental health and well-being more than others. For example, cognitive reappraisal seems to lead to greater well-being and better mental health outcomes, whereas the opposite is true for emotional suppression and rumination.

Cognitive reappraisal (i.e., reframing something in a more positive way) is typically a helpful way to regulate your emotions and can be particularly helpful when a situation is uncontrollable. For example, you can’t control how many friends show up to your dinner party, so it can be helpful to focus on the positive and feel grateful for your friends that did show up to your dinner party. However, cognitive reappraisal may not be as helpful when you can control the situation.

Take this as an example—let’s say you failed a midterm exam in your physics class, you’re feeling sad, and you decide to use cognitive reappraisal to help reframe the situation. You might think, “Oh, the midterm exam is only 40 percent of my grade, and my physics grade doesn’t determine the rest of my life.” Though this might be true, making yourself feel better about failing your test could lead you to feel less motivated to work hard to perform well on your final exam. So, cognitive reappraisal might not always be the best strategy to use, since it can affect your motivation to respond to those feelings of sadness in a more adaptive way, by studying harder for your next test, in situations that you can control.

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