Last updated on 6th September 2017
Reappraisal (changing the meaning we give to experiences) has been repeatedly shown to be one of the most effective ways we have to regulate our emotions. It's one of the star components of effective emotion-regulation, coping-skill toolkits ... and it's important to realise that these toolkits can be very helpful (De Castella, 2017). Reappraisal is important across a variety of difficult states ... depression (Cheng, 2017), anxiety (Goldin, 2017), anger, interpersonal conflict, minor hassles (Richardson, 2017), and major life difficulties. It can even sometimes help, if used skilfully, when things are going right for us (Pavani, 2016). Sadly, many of us are poor at reappraisal. We don't use it frequently enough, we don't know how to use it effectively, we don't know when to use it (and when not to), and we don't practise so the ability to reappraise gets rusty.
To look at the overall emotion regulation toolkit, I frequently use a version of "The Bus Driver Metaphor" as an easily rememberable framework on which I hang various coping skills. So the Driver's job is to repeatedly refocus on value-directed activity, using mindfulness skills to avoid being sabotaged by the Passengers of troubling mental content (Catastrophising, Ruminating/Worrying & Self-Blaming). I say that this is an old-fashioned bus with a bus Conductor (who is the bus Driver's friend). I also say that, although mostly the Driver best copes with the unruly Passengers by simply letting them be & getting on with driving the bus ... occasionally, maybe at a Coffee Stop (!), it may be useful for the Driver to have a word with any particularly & repeatedly troublesome Passengers (emotional processing of traumatic experiences). Of course, sometimes the thoughts & emotions of mental content are helpfully informative & motivating. Part of having a good coping skills toolbox is knowing when mental content is best largely ignored, and when best paid attention to (Hint: Catstrophising, Ruminating/Worrying & Self-Blaming are typically best "mindfully" tolerated/left to burble on rather than listened to).
Now all four of these core skills ... the Driver's value-driven refocusing, the Conductor's kind perpective, the Passengers' mindful irrelevance, and the Coffee Stop's opportunity for processing ... all four of these skills can be unpacked into subcomponents that's it's helpful to keep sharp & effective with practice. So for the Driver it's useful to clarify & remind ourselves of our values & goals (in my case often informed by Self-Determination Theory & the work of Shalom Schwartz). It's good too if the Driver is excellent both at problem-solving and learning. With the unruly Passengers, mindfulness is likely to benefit from the ability to accept/tolerate discomfort, to understand that these states trouble pretty much all of us at times, and that "naming is taming" (identifying/labelling what the Passengers are up to tends to reduce their influence over us). While for Coffee Stop processing, it's likely to be helpful to go down deep into our feelings & thoughts using writing or talking, to dig out detail, and to see what we now know that wasn't known when the trauma occurred.
As for the bus Conductor ... well this is the main focus of this piece of writing. The Conductor has two main functions ... kindness & perspective ... the Kind Friend & the Wise Friend. With both functions it's likely to be helpful if the Conductor encourages self-perspective by using our name, so on my bus the Conductor might say "Dear James ... " or even "Dear Jamie ... ". It can sometimes be more effective to speak looking at ourselves in a mirror to emphasise helpful distance. In their role as the Kind Friend, the Conductor may well also use caring touch/caring tone of voice, deep empathy, compassion & encouragement. In their role as Wise Friend, the Conductor may still use our name with a kind voice, but the main function here is Reappraisal. The aim of reappraisal is to shift perpective to a more productive viewpoint.
Nearly always, when faced with challenges, we can respond using a mixture of external change work and internal change work. When improving the outer situation is our main focus, reappraisal may be less appropriate. Reappraisal typically comes into its own, when our focus is to change how we internally see & respond to a difficult situation. When things are really tough and we're pretty heavily distressed, it may well be helpful to start with the Conductor's Kind Friend function before moving onto Wise Friend. Similarly, in the heat of the moment when challenges are right in our faces, it's typically best not to waste time on exploring how we can see things differently ... we probably want to problem solve or maybe 'distract'. The inner Wise Friend reappraisal work is probably best done before or after the situation has been at its worst.
More to follow ...