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Reframing and Stress Management

Reframing: It's All How You Look At It!

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Updated May 01, 2011

Reframing and Stress Management

Reframing a threat as a challenge can bring out a sense of resilience; reframing a challenge as an opportunity can work even better.

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Reframing In Action

Have you ever noticed that two people can face the same situation and one person can describe the situation as a harrowing ordeal while another sees it as a minor inconvenience? Or have you had one of those days when it seems that everything is going wrong--until you hear someone else's troubles that make yours pale in comparison, showing you that your stressors really aren't so bad? Have you faced a challenge in your life that initially seemed like a negative event, but that eventually brought gifts and gains that cause you to look back on the event as positive? These situations all involve a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as 'reframing'.

What Is Reframing?

Reframing is a way of changing the way you look at something and, thus, changing your experience of it. Reframing can turn a stressful event into either a major trauma or a challenge to be bravely overcome. Reframing can depict a really bad day as a mildly low point in an overall wonderful life. Reframing 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 Does Reframing Affect Stress?

Using reframing techniques can actually change your physical responses to stress because your body's stress response is triggered by perceived stress, not 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 Does Reframing Work?

Using reframing techniques can be simple and easy, especially with practice.
  1. Learn About Thinking Patterns. The first step in reframing is to educate yourself about some of these negative thinking patterns that may exacerbate 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 do 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Replace Your Thoughts With More Positive Thoughts Have you even 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 vs. 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!

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