How to generate positive affect in chronic stressful situations

Stress is usually linked to negative affect, but it has been proven that in situations of chronic stress, a positive effect may also appear frequently and that it is not incompatible.

On the other hand, affection can be defined as an emotional state central to an experience. It can be divided according to its valence into positive or negative affection; or according to its intensity, in weak or strong affection.

Negative affection includes unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, hostility, and guilt. On the other hand, positive affection includes pleasant emotions, such as joviality, kindness, relief, self-confidence, seeking experiences and vitality.

In general, we all have a greater tendency to experience positive or negative affections about the circumstances of our life. This tendency will depend on genetic and learning factors. However, conditions are dynamic and context dependent, with inter and intrapersonal variability. This opens the door to the possibility of learning new coping strategies.This increases the likelihood of feeling positive affect even in situations of chronic stress.

    Positive affection in the face of chronic stress

    historically, Negative affect has been considered to have an adaptive function when situations arise that are beyond our coping resources. and they generate stress for us. This is because emotions, such as anxiety or anger, allow us to become aware that there is a problem, to focus our attention on it, and to provide us with the energy and motivation to perform some sort. action in the face of this problem.

    Positive affect, on the other hand, has been linked to reduced attention to issues and decreased motivation to take care of themselves, providing a sense of security.

    However, studies have shown that positive affect, far from what it refers to, it expands our creativity and flexibility, encouraging us to be able to broaden the range of behaviors that we put in motion to deal with stressors. Plus, it helps us process information even when it’s bad news and allows us to take a break from so much discomfort.

    It can be considered adaptive, especially in situations where stress persists over time. It may also be a measure to prevent the development of obsessive and / or depressive clinical symptoms.

    How to generate positive affect in situations of chronic stress?

    Folkman and Moskowitz (2000) conducted a longitudinal study with caregivers of people living with HIV. They identified three types of coping linked to the emergence and maintenance of positive affect: positive reinterpretation, goal-oriented coping and the search for meaning in everyday situations.

    1. Positive reinterpretation

    The positive reinterpretation is a cognitive strategy that boils down to what is commonly called “seeing the glass half full” instead of “half empty”. It understands the primary assessment of the situation as something which brings some benefit, however small, and the avoidance of comparison with the situation of others.

    In addition, it usually goes hand in hand with activating personal values. In the case of the caregivers, the effort put in was precious to be a demonstration of love and to help preserve the dignity of the patients in their care.

      2. Goal-oriented approach.

      This type of confrontation is active and aims at specific objectives to solve a specific problem. This may include researching information, making decisions, developing an action plan, resolving conflicts, acquiring new knowledge or developing new skills.

      Even in situations where the controllability of the course of events is poor, as is the case with caregivers, Focusing on specific tasks has been shown to promote positive affect. In particular, it increases the perception of efficiency and dominance, fostering confidence in one’s own resources and skills to cope with the stressor as long as it lasts, regardless of the end result. 3. Give meaning to everyday situations.

      “Was there something that you did today, or something that happened to you that made you feel good, that was meaningful to you and helped you get through the day?” This is one of the questions asked of caregivers in the study described. 99.5% said yes. Half of the situations described were planned and intentional (for example, having a special lunch or going out with friends) and the other half were events that simply happened (for example, seeing a beautiful flower or receiving a compliment for something. minor).

      The meaning we give to everyday situations it’s what shapes the specific emotions we feel every day when we go through a time of stress. We need to differentiate it from the meaning we can give to our lives, which is a bit abstract and relates to beliefs and expectations about ourselves, the world and the future.


      Negative and positive affect play an adaptive role in stressful situations.

      While emotions like sadness or anger can help us realize that something is going on and draw our attention to it, positive emotions also help us deal with difficult situations, especially when those circumstances last for a long time. These are not incompatible emotions, but can occur simultaneously in the face of the same event.

      Specifically, positive affect can prevent the onset of psychopathological symptoms, stimulate our creativity, and increase our flexibility and adaptability.

      Each of us, through our experiences, discovers what things help us to face the difficult moments of our life. What studies suggest doing to generate positive affect as we go through difficult circumstances or chronic stress are three strategies: positive reinterpretation, goal-oriented adaptation, and most importantly, making sense of everyday situations. In psychotherapy processes, professionals who support patients also use these principles.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Folkman, S. and Moskowitz, JT (2000). Positive affection and the other side of confrontation. American Psychologist, 55 (6), 647-654.
      • Naragon-Gainey, K., McMahon, TP and Park, J. (2018). The contributions of affective traits and the regulation of emotions to the internalization of disorders: current state of the literature
      • and measurement challenges. American psychologist, 73 (9), 1175-1186.

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