Psychological scientist and lead researcher Allison Troy of Franklin and Marshall College and colleagues discovered that the controllability of a given situation seems to be the key in determining whether cognitive reappraisal helps or hurts.
She said that for someone facing a stressful situation in which they have little control, such as a loved one's illness, the ability to use reappraisal should be extremely helpful - changing emotions may be one of the only things that he or she can exert some control over to try to cope.
Troy asserted that for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive. Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation.
For their study, the researchers recruited a community sample of people who had recently experienced a stressful life event. The participants took an online survey aimed to measure their levels of depression and life stress.
About one week later, they came to the lab to take part in a challenge designed to measure their cognitive reappraisal ability.
The participants first watched a neutral film clip intended to induce a neutral emotional baseline, and then watched three sad film clips. During these clips, they were randomly assigned to use cognitive reappraisal strategies to think about the situation they were watching "in a more positive light."
The results showed that the ability to regulate sadness was associated with fewer reported symptoms of depression, but only for participants whose stress was uncontrollable - those with an ailing spouse, for instance. For participants with more controllable stress, being better at reappraisal was actually associated with more depressive symptoms.
The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.