“If you’ve ever felt too depressed to solve a problem, it might be because your brain is having a hard time regulating your emotions. One solution? Mindfulness training.” – Ruth Buczynsk
Meditation is known to improve the physical and mental health of practitioners. To some extent, it does so by improving emotion regulation (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/emotions/). This improvement involves fully experiencing emotions, not suppressing them, and responding to them in a rational and adaptive fashion. In other words, meditators appear to be able to feel and work with their emotions responsibly, non-judgmentally, and with acceptance, and not react in ways that are harmful to themselves and others.
Emotion regulation is in part improved in meditators by helping them to take things less personally. Meditation tends to reduce self-referential thinking (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/self/). Mindfulness tends to reduce self-critical thinking and their emotional aftermaths and improve self-esteem. As a result, meditation tends to reduce responses to self-related thoughts, ideas, and stimuli. This improved emotion regulation contributes to many facets of the individual’s mental health.
Meditation is also known to alter the nervous system. Actions that are repeated often tend to produce changes in the nervous system in a process called neuroplasticity and meditation is no exception. It tends to increase the size, activity, and connectivity of structures in the nervous system that are involved in attention and emotion regulation, frontal cortex regions, and decrease the size, activity, and connectivity of structures involved in mind wandering, self-referential thinking, and stress, the so called default mode network (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/neuroplasticity/).
In today’s Research News article “Altered processing of self-related emotional stimuli in mindfulness meditators”
Lutz and colleagues investigate emotional regulation responses in the nervous system of long term meditators (> a year of regular practice) in comparison to meditation naïve participants. As expected the meditators were higher in mindfulness especially in observing and non-reacting, self-compassion, and emotional awareness. The participants were then presented with personality descriptor adjectives that were either positive (attractive, handsome, funny) or negative (unattractive, unsightly, ugly) and recorded the responses of the nervous system to the stimuli.
Self-relevant items either positive or negative, but particularly positive, produced greater activation of the Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex in the meditators. The mindfulness component of non-reacting was positively correlated with activation of the Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex in the meditators but not the naïve participants. Finally, they found lower functional connectivity to posterior midline and parietal regions in the meditators compared to the naïve participants during both types of self-relevant items.
The meditators stronger activations of the frontal regions suggest that they have stronger self-awareness and focus on inner feelings. It also suggests that they have greater emotion regulation with non-reactive attitudes towards these experiences. Since the posterior structures of the default mode network in the nervous system are associated with self-referential thinking, the decreased connectivity to these regions in the meditators suggest that they have lesser self-focus than meditation naïve participants.
In sum, these results indicate that meditation produces changes in the brain that allows for greater emotion regulation and less thinking about self. These neural changes may in part account for the improved mental health in meditators. They are better able to cope with emotions and respond to them constructively and take everything less personally. So, meditation appears to change the brain making it better able to respond more constructively and less personally to emption laden events.
So, meditate to respond more effectively to self-praise and criticism.
“mindful attention does not inhibit initial evaluations insomuch as it limits the automatic expansion of initial evaluative reactions into activation of a broader set of implications about the self and the world.” – Norman Farb
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies