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2 Effective Strategies for Coping With Trauma and Loss

A review of new research on meaning-making strategies.

Key points

  • Reappraisal is an effective approach for making sense of low-intensity negative experiences.
  • Self-distanced reflection is an approach for making sense of high-intensity negative experiences.
  • Distanced reflection means observing an event from above or far away to see the big picture.

Published in Frontiers in Psychology, a recent investigation by Lau and Tov from Singapore examines the effectiveness of two types of meaning-making strategies for coping with negative experiences (e.g., loss and trauma).

Before continuing, let me define three facets of meaning in life, which are referred to in this study:

  • Coherence: Perception that one’s experiences make sense.
  • Purpose: Having an overall life goal.
  • Mattering: Feeling that one’s life matters and is worth living.

As described in the next section, the new research found that “when negative experiences were high on emotional intensity,” then “reflecting on the experience from a distanced (third-person) perspective enhanced coherence and existential mattering more than engaging in positive reappraisal.” But “when negative experiences were low on intensity, distanced reflection led to less coherence and mattering than positive reappraisal.”

Emotion-Regulation Strategies: Reappraisal and Reflection

Sample: There were 462 participants, with an average age of 21, and 78 percent were female.

Design: Two (positive reappraisal vs. reflection) x Two (self-distanced vs. self-immersed) between-subjects design.

Procedure: After completing measures of optimism and gratitude, participants were asked to write a sentence about a recent distressing or upsetting experience. Then they were randomly assigned to one of four tasks that required writing about the distressing incident:

  • From an immersed, first-person perspective
  • From a distanced, third-person perspective
  • By recalling the event and reflecting on it
  • By reappraisal (i.e., positive reframing of the event)

Crossing these manipulations resulted in four experimental groups: immersed reflection, distanced reflection, immersed reappraisal, and distanced reappraisal.

Subsequently, participants responded to various questions regarding their emotions, benefits or meaning of the experience, etc.

Positive Reappraisal vs. Distances Reflection

The results showed “positive reappraisal enhanced overall situational meaning of negative experiences as well as specific facets (purpose, coherence, and mattering).”

Furthermore, the “effects of positive reappraisal on coherence and mattering...were similar whether it was performed with a self-distanced (third-person) perspective or a self-immersed (first-person) perspective. This was true across levels of emotional intensity.”

However, for “high-intensity negative events,” “distanced reflection enhanced coherence and mattering relative to immersed reflection. For low-intensity negative events, the effect was reversed: distanced reflection resulted in less coherence and mattering than immersed reflection.”

In summary, it appears that when coping with highly intense negative experiences, distanced reflection (vs. distanced reappraisal) leads to greater coherence and the feeling that one matters. But this is reversed for experiences that are low in emotional intensity, so reappraisal is more effective.

Source: Pexels/Pixabay


The two emotion-regulation strategies discussed in this post are reflection and positive reappraisal.

Positive reappraisal means reinterpreting a negative event more positively; finding something beneficial or valuable in the experience.

For instance, using reappraisal, a very critical comment from a friend could be reconstrued as an attempt by the friend to cover up his or her own feelings of insecurity.

Similarly, getting a bad grade on a quiz could be reinterpreted as an opportunity to identify and work on areas that need improvement before the midterm or finals.

Reappraisal is considered one of the most effective emotion-regulation strategies for coping with stressful events, including loss and trauma. It is associated with reduced negative emotions, improved meaning-making, and better relationship outcomes. Nevertheless, reappraisal may not be the best strategy all the time or in every situation.

Specifically, the reviewed research found that reappraisal is more potent for coping with low-intensity negative experiences. To cope with emotionally intense negative experiences, the technique of distanced reflection may be more helpful.

Distanced reflection means trying to observe an event from above (or far away), rather than through one’s own eyes. Doing so allows us to see the “big picture” and make sense of our feelings and thoughts about the loss and trauma from a broader perspective.

How to Use Distanced Reflection and Positive Reappraisal

  • Distanced reflection: Replay the distressing situation in your mind while looking at yourself from a distance. Re-examine everything from a more objective fly-on-the-wall (than self-centered) point of view. See if you feel any different about the event.
  • Reappraisal: Identify anything potentially beneficial or valuable about the stressful situation experienced. Perhaps you gained a renewed appreciation for life, important life skills, greater wisdom, or a clearer sense of purpose. After identifying one or more benefits, notice if your feelings have changed.
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