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From scaredy cat to serene lion: The alchemy of cognitive reappraisal

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

Have you ever seen fear during a conflict? In many mediations and negotiations, I certainly have spotted fright, alarm, and even terror. The mediators I admire most are talented at using, modeling, and teaching a technique that can turn fear upside down into calm. This technique was described today by Jason Zweig in The Wall Street Journal, as well as in this article from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The technique is called cognitive reappraisal or cognitive reframing, and learning how to do it is easy. Zweig writes of his visit to the lab of Kevin Ochsner to learn how to change how he responded to things scary or disturbing.

I sat at a computer and viewed a series of photographs, each preceded by one of two words: look or reappraise. look was my cue to respond naturally without trying to change my feelings. reappraise told me I should “actively reinterpret” the photo, using my imagination to spin another, less emotional scenario that could have resulted in the same image.

Dr. Ochsner had warned me to eat an early, light lunch, and I immediately realized why: I gasped at the sight of a man’s hand from which most of the fingers had been freshly hacked off. But my instruction had been to reappraise, so I forced myself to ask whether this image might actually be a still from a horror movie. Magically, the moment I imagined it was a film prop, the raw flesh seemed to look a bit like plastic, and I felt myself exhale.

When he reappraises, he calms his amygdala, and goes from reactive brain to reflective mind. From the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience article linked to above:

Neural correlates of reappraisal were increased activation of the lateral and medial prefrontal regions and decreased activation of the amygdala and medial orbito-frontal cortex. These findings support the hypothesis that prefrontal cortex is involved in constructing reappraisal strategies that can modulate activity in multiple emotion processing systems.

Change your appraisal and you shift your brain. Zweig gives some additional tips on calming fears. [This paragraph is not supposed to be indented but the glitchy, maddening, annoying changes TypePad has made to its posting editor will not allow me to move it. Sorry.]

  • Step outside yourself. (For those of you who have taken my classes, this is the same as the awareness techniques “Seeing your life as a story” and “Double journaling.”) Describe the troubling situation or challenge as if it is happening to someone else.
  • Control your cues. Be careful whom you are around or upon what you are focusing because “glancing into another person’s frightened eyes can fire up your amygdala.” Emotional contagion tells us that we can catch the feelings of those in our environment.
  • Track your feelings. That’s what we call making mental notes:

We label the feeling, saying in our mind or, if appropriate, aloud, statements such as “I am angry” or “I am nervous.”  When we make statements like this, that part of the brain feeling the distracting emotion is calmed.  We can then return to clarity and purpose.  The neuroscience literature calls this “labeling the affect.”

I am going to quit now before I completely lose patience with TypePad. I wish I could add a photo to this  post but last time I tried to do so, the whole post exploded into scattered letters and spaces. I must go label my affect about TypePad in order to calm down. “I am exasperated.” “I feel helpless.” “I am angry.” Yep, I feel a little better.

Download ochsner_j_cognitive_neurosci.p


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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