Authors: Marlene Schmitt; Manuel Butollo; Dorothea König-Teshnizi; Christoph Burger
Objective: Cognitive reappraisal has repeatedly been shown to buffer negative health outcomes of life stress by helping reduce negative emotions. It has therefore been identified as a mostly adaptive emotion regulation strategy. Yet, some findings suggest that these beneficial effects might be context-dependent. Cognitive reappraisal might be helpful for regulating negative emotions in situations where life stress is uncontrollable. In situations where life stress is controllable, however, it may lead to a lack of action orientation, which might be less beneficial or even lead to more negative emotions.
So far, only few studies have investigated this moderating effect of stress controllability. The available studies have either used objective measures of stress controllability or a within-person design, leaving a lack of studies that use more subjective and habitual measures. We thus aimed to test this effect using a more habitual measure of perceived stress controllability.
Methods: A cross-sectional sample of 390 German-speaking university students completed self-report measures of cognitive reappraisal, overall level of negative emotions and perceived stress controllability. A moderation analysis was conducted with cognitive reappraisal as the independent variable, negative emotions as the dependent variable, and stress controllability as the moderator.
Results: The moderating effect of perceived stress controllability turned out to be significant (b = 0.07, p = .014) but small (R² = .009). When perceived stress controllability was low (-1 SD), the nominal value of the correlation between cognitive reappraisal and negative emotions was negative, and when it was high (+1 SD), the correlation was positive.
Conclusion: As hypothesized, the use of cognitive reappraisal was associated with less negative emotions when perceived stress controllability was low, but with more negative emotions when it was high. Although being small, this effect generally points in the same direction as previous studies using different methods. Possible reasons are discussed.