Reappraisal can help students become resilient despite stress

UC Berkeley researcher Iris Mauss explains the details of her experimental study on reappraisal as a response to stress. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

In difficult circumstances like the 5Cs face today, common questions arise: How can students regulate their emotions to overcome stress? What can students do to become resilient against stress’ harmful effects?

UC Berkeley researcher Iris Mauss spends every day studying the answers to these questions, and on Feb. 28, she brought her findings to a lecture at Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium.

“Psychological stress comes in many different shapes and forms … and what all these varied experiences share in common is that they can have devastating effects on our health,” Mauss said. “The question I’m really interested in is: What is it about some people, who are able to avoid the long-term effects and bounce back with success, that allows them to be resilient?”

According to Mauss, people tend to passively receive meaning from events they experience, but it’s possible to shift that response. In reacting to negative situations, people can create or alter the meaning invoked by the situation. This alteration is known as reappraisal, and can transform emotions with a positive spin from certain situations.

“The fundamental beliefs we hold about emotions matter,” Mauss said. She explained that if we believe we are unable to change our emotions in the future, then we will be less likely to try reappraisal, and therefore increase the damaging health effects of stress.

Mauss explained the details of her experimental study, which seeked to answer the question: Does reappraisal support resilience?

The 80 participants in her study had all experienced recent life stress, and were asked to watch a two-minute clip of a sad movie scene to evoke authentic emotion. Meanwhile, the researchers recorded the participants’ self-reported sadness level. Afterwards, they asked the participants to use reappraisal by imagining advice to give to the characters to make them feel better.

Mauss then compared the participants who demonstrated strong reappraisal abilities to those who showed weaker reappraisal abilities. She tracked the participants’ long-term resilience in real life, studying their depressive symptoms in response to life stress.

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The results found that those who were good at reappraisal had stable and approximately equal depressive symptoms against high and low stress situations, whereas those who were not as strong in reappraisal had much greater depressive symptoms in high-stress scenarios.

The lecture challenged the previous mindset of Genevieve Gray PO ’22.

“By the end of [the lecture], I think it was made very prevalent that you shouldn’t ignore your emotions,” Gray said. “Resilience and reappraisal is not about pushing your emotions to the back of your mind and pretending they don’t exist. It’s more about reframing what those emotions mean to you.”

Mauss ended the lecture with a note on when to use reappraisal.

“Importantly, reappraisal is not a panacea and can backfire,” Mauss said. “Sometimes it’s better to feel negative emotions [than] to change one’s situation.”

If the stressful event is controllable, Mauss said people should first do their best to try to fix the situation before using reappraisal, as using the technique too often may make us complacent and induce further harm.

Emily Tomz PO ’22 appreciated that Mauss explained when to use reappraisal, noting that there are many factors that play into its use as an emotion regulation strategy.

“Sometimes reappraisal is good and sometimes it is bad depending on the situation,” Tomz said. “Also, I guess I could try to look at things in a nice light, which I always tried to do, but now scientific research even shows that it does actually help.”

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