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December 23, 2018
by Elizabeth Pratt

Looking on the Bright Side Effective in Lowering Anxiety for Those on Lower Income

December 23, 2018 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

Looking on the bright side of life can sometimes be easier said than done. But for people with less money, it may be particularly useful in reducing anxiety.

Research published by the American Psychological Association found that finding a silver lining in a bad situation, a phenomenon known as cognitive reappraisal,  seems to reduce anxiety for those who make less money. The researchers hypothesize this may be due to people on a lower income having less control over their environment.  

“Cognitive reappraisal is a common antidote for anxiety. We started to wonder whether reappraisal is really effective in reducing anxiety for everyone or if there are some people who benefit the most from it. We were surprised by how consistent these findings were. Reappraisal was most helpful for individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in reducing anxiety across different populations, for current and long-term anxiety, and for nonclinical and clinical anxiety symptoms,” Emily Hittner, co-author of the study, told Theravive. 

“When life throws challenges at you and you have limited resources, it may become particularly important to ‘change the things you can,’” she said.

The researchers gathered data from an experiment involving 112 married couples. The participants watched a short movie that was designed to upset them and were told that if they felt any negative emotions, to try and reframe the situation or think about it in such a way that they felt fewer negative emotions. These are cognitive reappraisal strategies. The participants were also asked to disclose their income using a scale and share whether they used cognitive reappraisal strategies in their every day life.

Participants who had a lower socioeconomic status and who used cognitive reappraisal strategies said they felt less anxious, but this was not the case for participants in the middle or upper income brackets.

The researchers also looked at data from a national survey of more than two thousand people who were interviewed by phone in the 1990s and interviews a second time nine years later. The participants were asked in both interviews whether they used cognitive reappraisal strategies, and measured their anxiety levels. Those who used reappraisal strategies said they had experienced a decrease in anxiety levels by the second interview, but this was only for those on lower incomes.  

In both the study with the film and the phone interviews, cognitive reappraisal strategies were found to be less effective once a person’s income was above $35 thousand per year.

The researchers hypothesize that may be because those who make more money annually are able to take more control of their situation and potential change it rather than needing to reframe it. Those on lower incomes may lack the necessary resources to change their circumstances, so reframing negative situations in a positive way may be more effective for this group.

Cognitive reappraisal in one aspect of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a form of psychotherapy commonly used to treat anxiety disorders.

The researchers say the method is something that could be used by the average person in every day life. Hittner uses the example of a romantic break up. Reacting to that situation and focusing on the negatives, a person may be sad and afraid of being lonely forever. Using cognitive reappraisal strategies, a person going through a breakup could instead manage these negative thoughts and feeling by reframing the situation and looking at it in a different way. They could see the break up as an opportunity to spend more time with loved ones, discover new hobbies or passions, get in touch with old friends or have the time to find a relationship that is more fulfilling.

“Think about the last time something happened in your life that was difficult to handle. How did you deal with it? Did you try to find a silver lining? If so, you used one of the most common strategies of emotion regulation – you used cognitive reappraisal,” Claudia Haase, PhD co-author of the study told Theravive.

More research is needed to determine whether those from a higher socioeconomic background could benefit from strategies that don’t involve cognitive reappraisal, but for those on a lower income, cognitive reappraisal seems to be effective.

“Social inequalities in the US are on the rise with wealth increasingly concentrated in the top 1-2% and about half of the population considered poor or low income. As life-span developmental researchers, we are interested in how individuals deal with challenges and threats. Our findings show that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds really benefit from cognitive reappraisal strategies,” Hittner said.  

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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