Looking On The Bright Side Can Make You More Stressed And Depressed

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Controlling our emotions might not always be a good idea.

Trying to think positively about a bad review from work, for example, is actually harmful to your emotional health, according to new research published Oct. 21 in Psychological Science.

"Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation," lead researcher Allison Troy of Franklin & Marshall College said in a press release.

So if we don't allow ourselves to have a normal emotional response to something like a bad review at work, then we won't start putting in more effort at work and in the long run we end up feeling even worse about the situation.

The good and the bad

In some cases "looking on the bright side," or attempting to change the emotional impact a stressful situation, can be beneficial. This type of emotional control — called cognitive reappraisal — involves reframing the way we think about a stressful or unpleasant situation in order to change the emotional impact it has.

For example, when dealing with something we have no control over, like the chronic illness of a family member, it's probably helpful to "look on the bright side" and not let emotions get out of control.

But when it's something we do have control over, like trouble at work because of poor performance, it's a bad idea to make the situation seem less negative. Ignoring or reigning in your emotions in those cases can actually leave you feeling more sad and stressed out.

"Context is important," Troy said.

The study conducted by Troy and her team included 170 participants composed of people who had recently dealt with stress: both uncontrollable stress, like dealing with the death of a family member, and more controllable kinds of stress, like getting negative feedback at work.

Those participants first watched a short video designed to create a neutral emotional response, then three videos designed to create a sad emotional response. They were then told to think about what they just watched "in a more positive light" and report how they felt.

Those dealing with uncontrollable stress in their lives used reappraisal successfully and reported feeling less depressed. But those with controllable stress actually reported an increase in feelings of depression after using the reappraisal technique.

In those cases, attempting to control emotions actually made people feel worse. Previous research in this area only found that reappraisal produced positive results. The researchers plan to expand their study and examine other ways to regulate emotion, like suppression or distraction.



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