Cognitive Restructuring

The second major category of stress reducing techniques is more cognitive in nature. We have already encountered it a few pages back in the research of Lazarus (1993). This approach involves changing the negative emotions that produce a stressful event. Re-interpreting an event is called cognitive restructuring or reframing.

What useful insight is cited, erroneously, over a million times on the web?

For example, almost any unexpected set-back can be construed as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe. (This is like the often cited "fact" that the Chinese character for crisis contains the character for opportunity. This turns out to be an error, based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese characters. However, the insight is so useful that it is cited over a million times on the web.) Reframing a set-back as an opportunity may open the door to constructive decision-making while simultaneously reducing negative emotions and stress.

As Albert Ellis might say, we are not kings and queens of the universe, and we cannot automatically change every negative situation to be neutral or positive. "Reality often stinks." But often a re-appraisal is simultaneously more realistic (most teachers are not, in fact, intentionally trying to do students harm) and stress-reducing (once a student realizes the teacher is not out to do harm, a difficult class may seem challenging but not so stressful). Ideally, changing an emotional script means coming up with a more accurate version of reality that also does not trigger harmful stress reactions.

How can the "anger script" be changed?

Suggesting ways in which a script might be re-written does not take long, so this type of counseling can be accomplished in brief therapy. Consider Bloom's recommendations concerning brief therapies in Chapter 13. He said the goal is to identify a focal problem quickly and offer an interpretation that expands a patient's awareness with the goal of starting a problem-solving sequence. This was done in a two-hour session.

What is the "anxiety script"?

Suppose a student is anxious about doing poorly in school. In a two-hour session, one might essentially re-write the anxiety script. The script for anxiety involves (1) an event in the future (such as being expelled from school) and (2) a threat to one's well-being (such as "my parents are going to kill me"). We might borrow Ellis's technique of disputing irrational ideas and challenge that statement, because the parents are not really going to kill the student, one would hope. Then one might attempt to re-write the "anxiety" script into a "hope" script by giving a different scenario of future events.

How might this technique be used with a student in danger of flunking out?

How is an anxiety script converted into a hope script? To stay faithful to the principles outlined above, the re-appraisal must be accurate but also a new, less negative perspective. One might point out, for example, that all those older, so-called non-traditional students on campus (who are usually excellent students and a delight to professors) must come from somewhere. Obviously they are people who never completed college at an earlier age.

So it is not a life-ending tragedy if one is expelled for low grades. It is a chance to re-assess one's plans, maybe enter a different type of school such as a technical school instead of a university, or perhaps just to do a little growing up before coming back to complete a degree as a slightly older person. In truth, if you are performing at a marginal level, leaving school may be one of the best things that could happen to you. It may prevent you from wasting your one opportunity in life to get an undergraduate education (because nobody does it twice). Instead of sliding through with Cs and Ds as an 18 or 19 year old, you can come back and get As and Bs as an older, more mature person.

What is the hoped-for effect of rewriting an anxiety script into a hope script?

As a form of therapy with a student who is distressed about flunking out, this is more than just wishful thinking (although it might be for some people, if they never return to school). It is a plan for the future that offers hope of a positive outcome. It is also more accurate than thinking, "If I flunk out, my parents will kill me." So it is an attempt to do what Bloom recommended: offer a new perspective to a person in distress and help the person start thinking about future goals and problem solving. That, in turn, might relieve some anxiety at the end of a disastrous school term.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey