Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Improve Your Functioning In Stressful Situations: A Proven Strategy

Most of us would agree and research confirms that when faced with a stressful situation the mandate “ Calm Down” rarely helps.

The feelings of anxiety we have walking into the boss’s office to ask for a raise, waiting to meet a stranger we met online or sitting down to take the math regents are difficult to decrease because they are automatic. Research finds that simply suppressing them does not work.

What if we changed the feelings instead of suppressing them?Stressed student during a test

We have long recognized that if we change how we perceive a situation–we change how we feel about it.

In the 17th century in his epic poem, “Paradise Lost” John Milton writes, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet utters “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal is an emotion regulating strategy that capitalizes on this wisdom. It involves changing our emotional response to something by reappraising or reinterpreting its meaning.

In a recent study entitled “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School compared the attempt to calm down vs. reappraisal across several studies involving karaoke singing before strangers, public speaking, and math performance.

Compared with those who told themselves to calm down, individuals who reappraised their anxious arousal as excitement felt more excited and performed better.

What the study finds is that individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which leads them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.

Why Reappraisal of Anxiety as Excitement Works?

As explained by Dr. Therese Huston who suggests reappraisal of anxiety as excitement as a strategy to improve decision-making– excitement frames the future as a challenge you are looking forward to, as opposed to anxiety which paints the future as a threat you might not be equipped to handle. It is not that your heart won’t pound and you won’t feel the usual stress reactions, it is that they will be reframed as something positive. The positive perception and feelings are very valuable to access.

Whereas negative perception increases our sensitivity toward negative cues and tends to be constrictive, positive feelings have been shown to enhance our coping by broadening and building. They expand our momentary thought–action repertoire in stressful situations. They foster action, spark the urge to explore, to savor the moment, to be creative, etc.

How Can I Use Reappraisal?

The reappraisal process involves two parts:

Part One

The first part involves recognizing your negative feelings or negative perception of a situation. One recommendation for doing this is to apply mindfulness. This translates to taking a moment to become mindful of how you feel and/ how you are defining a situation. Mindfulness expert, Elisha Goldstein would say that taking that mindful moment opens a space for options.

Part Two

Within that space,  you have an opportunity to carry out the second part, which is to reinterpret your feelings, which may alter your perception of a situation:

“ I am excited (instead of anxious) about giving this toast. This is an opportunity to let my brother know how proud I am of him. It is something special for us.”


You might also use that space to reinterpret the situation, which may affect your feelings:

A powerful example of reinterpreting the situation was a study by Moskowitz, Folkman, Collette & Vittinghoff. In this study caregivers of terminally ill partners who positively reappraised the painful and exhausting caregiver role to be instead a demonstration of love and a way to preserve the dignity of their ill partners, experienced increases in positive affect (feelings) at different times both before and after the death of their partner.

Consider using Reappraisal- In a stressful situation, you may have a different experience.

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. (Epictetus)


Listen in to a Podcast of Dr. Therese Huston on Psych Up Live. She offers more strategies and discusses the ways in which differences in men and women can improve decision making when they are both in the boardroom.