Sometimes we get carried away by our emotions. Anger is a frequent culprit. Road rage is a perfect example. But we can also get overtaken by many other emotions such as love, jealousy, fear, etc. When this happens we often engage in behaviors that are either harmful or that we deeply regret later.
How do we control these powerful emotions? Can we learn to regulate them so that they don’t overwhelm us? One strategy is to actively strive to suppress the emotion. This is difficult, requires immense self-control, and most of the time doesn’t work. In addition, repression of extreme emotions can lead to later psychological issues. It has long been thought that repression can be problematic as the emotions reemerge late often in disguised forms.
A better strategy is mindfulness. It has been demonstrated that mindfulness training leads to a decrease in emotionality and to an increase in ability to regulate and respond appropriately to these emotions. With mindfulness the emotion is experienced fully, recognized, and appreciated for what it is. Because the emotion is processed, its power to affect behavior is reduced allowing the individual to form a more appropriate response to the situation. This is the exact opposite of emotional suppression which attempts to eliminate the emotion.
In today’s Research News article “Neural Networks for Mindfulness and Emotion Suppression”
it is demonstrated that dealing with emotions with mindfulness or with emotional suppression operate through different neural pathways. Both strategies attenuated the response of the amygdala to the emotional triggers. This area has long been known to be a key neural structure for the production of emotions. It can be thought of as a final common pathway through which emotionality is produced. So, it is not surprising that both mindfulness and emotional suppression result in a decrease in Amygdala activity.
It was shown, however, that the two strategies work through different regulation pathways to affect the Amygdala. The mindful approach affects the Amygdala via connections from the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, which is an important region for emotional awareness and mindfulness, while emotional suppression uses connections with other regions including the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex and an area called the Precuneus, which are involved in top-down regulatory processing and which therefore require more cognitive effort.
The neural systems involved in the two strategies make sense given what we know about mindful vs. suppressive emotion regulation. Suppression takes intentional effort and this can be seen in the activation of cognitive processing areas of the brain. Mindfulness doesn’t take such effort. It is much more laid back and effortless. The structures involved reflect this.
So, use mindfulness to help control emotions; it’s a better way and even takes less effort.