Reappraisal: harnessing emotions to help, not hinder, our actions

Reappraisal: harnessing emotions to help, not hinder, our actions

28 April 2020 0 By Rhi Willmot

What is it?  We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, who act based on a cost-benefit analysis of options. However, emotional responses have a profound influence on our behaviour1. In fact, when we are stressed, fatigued or dealing with complexity, we are more heavily driven by emotional impulses than considered thought2. Leaders need to appreciate such conflicts both in themselves and their (remote) teams, as well as the broader public.

For example, feelings of frustration, boredom and hopelessness will likely drive individuals to break social distancing guidelines via seeking external stimulation or support. As such, it is essential to help people effectively regulate their emotions during lockdown. This includes ways to help in tolerating uncertainty, managing stress and tackling negative feelings which arise from a lack of social interaction and activity. Physical exercise is a powerful way to release turbulent emotions, but when this is not an option, a more cognitive approach can work. 

‘Cognitive reappraisal’ is an emotion management strategy which involves reinterpreting the meaning of a situation to either increase positive feelings or decrease negative ones3. Reappraisal is particularly relevant to coping in lockdown – whilst little can be done to change situational factors, we can change how we think about them. This has a significant impact on emotion, and subsequently behaviour4

How to use it:  

  1. Positive Vibes – messages which communicate how lockdown can be framed in a positive way will help others develop their own favourable interpretations. For example, being ‘stuck at home’ can be reframed as ‘safe at home’. Difficulty obtaining particular food items might be reinterpreted as the opportunity to be creative with what is available, and time normally spent on one leisure activity can be redirected toward picking up a new hobby. Reappraisal requires practice but is a valuable transferable skill to develop.  
  2. Collective Creativity – the above process can be enhanced by making it interactive and collaborative. For example, initiatives which ask others what they have enjoyed, appreciated or learnt during lockdown will also prompt positive reappraisals. For example, some have already been using social media to share photos of their lockdown ‘baking fails’, providing entertainment for themselves, and many others!
  3. Learning in Lockdown – whilst many of us are attempting to live a normal life in abnormal circumstances, it is important to acknowledge we are operating against a backdrop in which standard expectations simply cannot apply. Lockdown can alternatively be framed as a unique opportunity to understand oneself and ones life in more detail, rather than an uphill struggle to meet the expectations of another life.


1.        Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.(Penguin, 2009).

2.        Dolan, P. et al. Influencing behaviour: The mindspace way. J. Econ. Psychol. 33, 264–277 (2012).

3.        Gross, J. J. The Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation: Elaborations, Applications, and Future Directions. Psychological Inquiry 26, 130–137 (2015).

4.        Johnson, J., Panagioti, M., Bass, J., Ramsey, L. & Harrison, R. Resilience to emotional distress in response to failure, error or mistakes: A systematic review. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 52, 19–42 (2017).