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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Ameliorate Anger and Anxiety

Mentally reframing a situation can ease negative feelings



LISA KIMBERLY Getty Images

We can't always avoid events that upset us, but we may be able to change how we feel about them. Psychologists have long been interested in framing, the mental angle we take when we process our experiences, as a method of moving past unwanted negative feelings. Two recent studies yield real-world tips for feeling better quickly:

Distance Yourself from Immediate Frustration

If you are cut off in traffic, you are likely to respond by blowing your horn. Chances are, you will spend the rest of your commute thinking about the actions of the jerk in front of you. Mentally taking a step back from the situation and your emotions, however—a process known as self-distancing—can diffuse your anger and reduce your aggression, researchers say.

Ohio State University psychology graduate student Dominik Mischkowski and his colleagues set out to annoy a group of student volunteers by leading them to believe they were waiting for a study to start. The researchers avoided answering questions and were generally curt. After confirming that the volunteers were indeed upset, Mischkowski asked them to reimagine the experience: half the group by reliving it through their own eyes and the other half by mentally moving away from the situation and watching it at a distance, as if it had happened to someone else. The self-distancing students had less anger and were less likely to respond aggressively to others in a subsequent task, according to results published in the September 2012 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This technique is useful, Mischkowski says, because prolonged anger can lead to stress, relationship difficulties and high blood pressure.

So the next time a car zips in front of you in traffic, don't focus on your anger from the driver's seat. Instead imagine yourself in a traffic helicopter, observing the entire scene. Take in the bigger picture, keep your emotions at arm's length and let the anger dissipate. —Carrie Arnold

Avoid Abstract Thinking about Bad Memories

It's hard not to dwell on a bad experience, but the way you think about it could mean the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping. A study in the September 2012 Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry focused on people who had recently experienced a highly distressing event—such as a crime, the death of a loved one or a relationship breakup. Subjects in one group wrote about their experiences in a concrete, objective way, by concentrating on questions such as “How do I feel right now? How did I feel at the time of the event and what did I see, hear and think? How might I deal with a similar situation in the future?” The other group wrote in a more abstract, evaluative way, prompted by questions such as “Why did the event happen? Why do I feel this way about it? Why didn't I handle it differently?” After the writing exercise, the concrete-thinking group reported fewer intrusive memories of the event than the abstract-thinking group.

Researchers think the concrete focus helps to facilitate emotional processing and problem solving, whereas an abstract perspective hinders these undertakings. “The processing can take place either ‘in your head’ or when writing about it,” says study author Thomas Ehring, now at the University of Münster in Germany. Past studies indicate that putting words on paper might be better than just thinking [see “The Power of the Pen,” by Katja Gaschler; Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007]. Just be sure to focus on the facts and keep your ideas concrete. —Tori Rodriguez

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