How to reduce stress with positive reframing

Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.

When facing potential stressors, the way we view what we're experiencing can greatly increase our stress—or minimize it. Cognitive reframing is a time-honored, psychologist-recommended method of looking at things in ways that create less stress and promote a greater sense of peace and control. If you don't already use this stress relief strategy regularly, you may want to consider it.

What Is Cognitive Reframing?

Reframing is a way of changing the way you look at something and, thus, changing your experience of it. It can turn a stressful event into either highly traumatic or a challenge to be bravely overcome. Or, it can depict a really bad day as a mildly low point in overall wonderful life. Or, it can see a negative event as a learning experience.

Reframing is a way that we can alter our perceptions of stressors and, thus, relieve significant amounts of stress and create a more positive life before actually making any changes in our circumstances.

How Reframing Affects Stress

Using reframing techniques can actually change your physical responses to stress because your body's stress response is triggered by perceived stress, more often than actual events.

If you perceive that you are threatened—physically or psychologically—by a situation, your fight-or-flight response will kick in.  

Your stress response can be triggered by events ranging from annoying to frightening and can remain triggered long after the triggering event has passed, especially if you’re not practicing relaxation techniques. Reframing techniques are a way of minimizing the stressors you perceive in your life, thus easing the process of relaxation.  

How Reframing Works

Using reframing techniques can be simple and easy, especially with practice.

Learn About Thinking Patterns

The first step in reframing is to educate yourself about some of these negative thinking patterns that may greatly increase your stress levels. See these common cognitive distortions to see which ones, if any, may come into play in your life. Also, read about negative explanatory styles to learn the particular way that pessimists view their life experiences; since pessimists tend to experience more stress and less success than optimists, it’s important to understand how they think and work to adopt a positive explanatory style instead. Educating yourself about thinking patterns and how they affect people is important for laying the groundwork for understanding and change.

Notice Your Thoughts

The next step is to catch yourself when you’re slipping into overly negative and stress-inducing patterns of thinking.   Being aware of them is an important part of challenging and ultimately changing them. One thing you can do is just become more mindful of your thoughts, as though you’re an observer. When you catch negative thinking styles, just note them at first. If you want, you can even keep a journal and start recording what’s happening in your life and your thoughts surrounding these events, and then examine these thoughts through your new ‘lens’ to get more practice in catching these thoughts. Another helpful practice is meditation, where you learn to quiet your mind and examine your thoughts. Once you become more of an observer, it’s easier to notice your thoughts rather than remaining caught up in them.

Challenge Your Thoughts

As you notice your negative thoughts, an effective part of reframing involves examining the truth and accuracy (or lack thereof) of these thoughts. Are the things you're telling yourself even true? Also, what are some other ways to interpret the same set of events? Which ways of seeing things serve you better? Instead of seeing things the way you always have, challenge every negative thought, and see if you can adopt thoughts that fit your situation but reflect a more positive outlook.

Replace Your Thoughts With More Positive Thoughts

Have you ever been to a hospital and noticed that the nurses often ask people about their 'discomfort' rather than their 'pain'? That's reframing in action. If the patient is in searing pain, the term 'discomfort' becomes annoying and seems to reflect a disconnect in understanding, but if the pain is mild, reframing it as 'discomfort' can actually minimize the experience of pain for many patients.

This is a useful reframing trick that we can all put into practice. When you’re looking at something negative, see if you can change your self talk to use less strong, less negative emotions. When you’re looking at a potentially stressful situation, see if you can view it as a challenge versus a threat.   Look for the ‘gift’ in each situation, and see if you can see your stressors on the more positive edge of reality: see them in a way that still fits the facts of your situation, but that is less negative and more optimistic and positive.

That's the gist of reframing, and you can do it as often as you'd like. Most people are surprised at what a big impact reframing can have on their experience of stress—changing the way you look at your life can truly change your life.

Two types of reappraisal that are particularly effective are positive reframing and examining the evidence.

Positive reframing involves thinking about a negative or challenging situation in a more positive way. This could involve thinking about a benefit or upside to a negative situation that you had not considered. Alternatively, it can involve identifying a lesson to be learned from a difficult situation. Finding something to be grateful about in a challenging situation is a type of positive reappraisal. For example, after a break-up you could think about the opportunities to meet new people, the things you learned from the relationship, and the gratitude you feel for the time you spent with the person.

Examining the evidence involves weighing the evidence for your interpretation of a situation. This involves examining the assumptions you are making about how other people are thinking, feeling, or likely to behave. You might evaluate how likely it is that a negative outcome occurs, think about how often a negative outcome has happened in the past in a similar situation, or think about what the worst possible outcome is (and whether it is likely to happen), and whether you could handle if it did happen. You can also ask yourself: “What is the evidence that this outcome will happen?” For example, after performing poorly on an assignment and worrying about the consequences on your GPA, you can think about other assignments you have done well on in the past, the likelihood that you will be able to do well on the next assignment, and whether you could handle getting a lower grade than you wanted if it happened.

Other strategies for reappraisal include remining yourself that thoughts aren’t facts, identifying extreme language (e.g., I will always feel this way; things will never get better) and rephrasing with less extreme words, questioning the assumptions or biases that led to your interpretation, and taking on someone else’s perspective (e.g., if you told someone else about the situation, would they interpret it the same way?).

Sometimes the first way we reappraise a situation won’t stick, and that’s okay. It’s important to try to think about situation flexibly in different ways until you land on an interpretation that feels right to you. This is not always going to be the most positive interpretation!

Please use this worksheet to practice reappraisal in relation to situations that aren’t going well or are making you upset. It sometimes helps to generate multiple reappraisals for each situation.