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Imagination Can Help Beat COVID Blues, Here's How Cognitive Reappraisal Works

Hundreds of psychologists say it works.
by Ara Eugenio
Sep 30, 2021
Photo/s: Shutterstock
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Tris, 22, was dealing with five major life problems as the pandemic raged. She had just quit from her toxic job, moved back into her childhood home, found out she was being cheated on by her then-boyfriend, and as if isolation wasn't enough, her grandmother died.

Everyday felt like she was spiraling down, and so when she finally got the chance to get herself in therapy and talk about it after months of crying, she was asked to imagine herself as an object. 

"I don’t know why but I said, I was a boat. I saw myself as a small boat na made of wood lang, na hindi makasail kasi nga I was just so small and I felt like the people around me were these big boats," Tris said, explaining how stuck she felt in life while her friends seemed like they were all moving forward with theirs. 

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"So, sabi ng therapist ko, 'okay you’re this small boat and they’re the big boats. What do you think about that?' Seeing it from that perspective, I realized, 'Okay, i’m this small boat nga, so why am I putting this much pressure on myself? That means, if i’m gonna force myself to move the same pace as them, i'm just gonna wreck myself eventually because as a small boat, i’m not ready," she said. 

That became a trick that Tris now holds dearly to herself whenever she started feeling negative emotions. Looking at a negative situation in a different light works for her, as it doesn't just validate her problem. It also gives her space to think of what she could do in order to move forward.

The strategy is what psychology calls as "cognitive reappraisal", which, according to a recent study undertaken by hundreds of psychologists in 87 countries across the world, is a skill that all of us can benefit from as we navigate a world with COVID-19.

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Published by the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour, the peer-reviewed paper is the most recent project of the Psychological Science Accelerator, a globally distributed network of psychological science laboratories.

The study tested over 20,000 participants, including Filipinos, over how they feel about the pandemic after they were taught how to reappraise.

The results were astounding, validating a technique clinical psychology has believed to be effective for decades and ultimately suggesting that although it's a simple skill, usually encountered only in therapy, it could make all the difference in times as trying as the one we have now, if only more people knew about it.

How cognitive reappraisal works

For analysts, cognitive reappraisal works because of the link between one's thoughts and feelings. Feelings are usually preceded by certain thoughts, so when they shift, emotions can change.

Participants in the study were asked to read about two reappraisal methods. First is refocusing, which looks at a bright side of a given situation such as when you think of being forced to stay at home during a pandemic as an opportunity to spend more time with your family. And then there's reconstruing, wherein you could look at the pandemic's big picture in a less-negative light, such as that humanity overcame similar pestilence in the past and made it through. 

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The study does not guarantee that these interventions would work on all types of individuals, as not everyone experiences the same level of hardships. Still, they vouched for its capability to help one feel better even for just one moment, having observed a significant difference between those who learned reappraisals and did not.

Reappraising a situation  toxic positivity

It's easy to miscontrue cognitive reappraisal as a toxic positivity trait. But according to a clinical psychologist reportr talked to, it's not.

"We cannot control what happens in our environment, but we can control or choose how we react to a certain situation. We can choose positivity, kumbaga, but that doesn't mean you're already ignoring the actual situation or reality. It just really helps to see or look at a situation in a different angle," said Joseph Marquez, a registered psychologist.

"'Yung toxic positivity kasi is thinking na 'oh, this situation is actually good', na it is because of this situation that good things are happening. It's like saying 'it's good that the pandemic happened because nature healed," Tris said, reaffirming how reappraising the situation has proven itself effective for her.

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"I think as people, when we have two stories we can tell ourselves, it’s either 'yung masamang story na 'ah i’m so kawawa, i’m so useless, i’m so terrible, and then there’s the good thing na, 'ah maybe i’m just not ready'. I think too often we choose to tell ourselves the bad story, the one that's gonna make us feel worse about ourselves," she said.

"But then I learned in therapy that everytime I would be afraid of the future, I can always put a stop to my thoughts, prevent myself from catastrophizing, by asking, 'but what if the good thing happens?' Because historically, it always turns out not as bad as you think. So doing the simple thing of sitting down with yourself, and talking to your thoughts, and showing your thoughts another way, really helps me cope," she added.

For Tris, although the journey to healing is far from over, she considers herself in a much better place now, having gotten help. Her hope is for more people to have the same access she has, recognizing that even with privilege, the process to getting help remains gruelling in the Philippines, where merely recognizing you need one is still largely taboo. 

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"My therapist asked me then, 'what can you do for the mean time knowing that big ships are already sailing and you’re still just a small boat? I told her, 'maybe as a small boat, I can focus on strengthening my foundations, add other things to my boat that will make it stronger. And maybe, i'll just standby for now and wait for the waters to become calmer, so that I can wade into them again," she said.

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