By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Through mindfulness you can learn to turn your difficult emotions into your greatest teachers and sources of strength. How? Instead of ‘turning away’ from pain in avoidance we can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what we’re experiencing. We can bring a caring open attention toward the wounded parts of ourselves and make wise choices about how to respond to ourselves and to life.” – Melissa O’Brien
One of the most important effects of mindfulness training is improving emotion regulation. Its importance arises out of the fact that we’re very emotional creatures. Without emotion, life is flat and uninteresting. Emotions provide the spice of life. We are constantly having or reacting to emotions. We often go to great lengths in an attempt to create or keep positive emotions and conversely to avoid, mitigate, or get rid of negative emotions. They are so important to us that they affect mostly everything that we do and say and can even be determinants of life or death. Anger, fear, and hate can lead to murderous consequences. Anxiety and depression can lead to suicide. At the same time love, joy, and happiness can make life worth living. Our emotions also affect us physically with positive emotions associated with health, well-being, and longevity and negative emotions associated with stress, disease, and shorter life spans.
The importance of emotions is only surpassed by our ignorance of them. Our rational side tries to downplay their significance and as a result research studies of emotions are fairly sparse and often ridiculed by politicians. So there is a great need for research on the nature of emotions, their effects, how they are regulated or not, and what factors affect them. One important factor is mindfulness. Research has demonstrated that people either spontaneously high in mindfulness or trained in mindfulness are better able to be completely in touch with their emotions and feel them completely, while being able to respond to them more appropriately and adaptively. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control emotions.
In today’s Research News article “Mechanisms of mindfulness: the dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring.” See:
Uusberg and colleagues investigate the development of emotion regulation with mindfulness practice. It is difficult to measure emotion regulation directly while meditating. But, it can be measured indirectly by recording the electrical responses of the brain to emotional stimuli. In particular, the Late Positive Potential (LPP) has been shown to be sensitive to the intensity of emotional responses. It is a positive going waveform recorded from the brain that occurs between half a second to a second and a half after a picture is presented.
Uusberg and colleagues recruited meditation naïve participants and asked them to view either pictures that were neutral (everyday urban scenes) or that evoked negative emotional reactions (accidents or attacks). They viewed the pictures under three different conditions, an attention condition, where they were asked to pay attention to the details of the pictures, a mindful viewing condition where they were asked to experience “all arising thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in an accepting manner without trying to change them”, or a distraction condition where they were asked to count backward while viewing the pictures. They then measured the Late Positive Potential (LPP) and how it changed as practice continued.
They found that during mindful viewing the amplitude of the LPP was initially significantly larger than the other conditions when negative images were viewed, suggesting that initially mindful viewing evokes strong emotional responses. But then the response disappeared and the LPP for the neutral and the negative images were equivalent for the mindfulness condition. This elimination of the emotional response in later trials did not occur in the other conditions. This suggests that the mindfulness condition produces an eventual loss of emotional responding.
These results are interesting and suggest that mindfulness meditation initially makes the meditator more sensitive to emotions but with practice becomes insensitive. Since mindfulness meditation requests that the meditator pay attention to their own internal reactions, it is reasonable that the emotional responses would be more vigorous. Over time however, the attention to the emotion responses appear to result in their extinction. This could be seen as simply getting used to it and not responding as before, sometimes called habituation. All of this suggests that the improvement in emotion regulation resulting from meditation is due to an enhancement of the extinction process produced by paying attention to the feelings.
These results also demonstrate how quickly the blunted emotional response occurs, within a brief time at the beginning of meditation practice for beginning meditators. As such, emotion regulation may be one of the earliest effects of mindfulness training. Hence, emotion regulation may make be the basis for later effects such as stress reduction or decreased inflammatory responses. Regardless, the results suggest that you can adapt to emotions with mindfulness and we know that this has profound effects on the health and well-being of the individual.
“This is just what the practice of mindfulness helps us remember. Working with emotions during our meditation sessions sharpens our ability to recognize a feeling just as it begins, not 15 consequential actions later. We can then go on to develop a more balanced relationship with it—neither letting it overwhelm us so we lash out rashly nor ignoring it because we’re afraid or ashamed of it.” – Sharon Salzberg
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Uusberg, Helen, Uusberg, Andero, Talpsep, Teri, Paaver, Marika, Mechanisms of mindfulness: the dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring. Biological Psychology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.05.004
- Mindfulnessinitially increases and then reduces affective LPP amplification.
- There is no affective amplification during re-exposure to mindfully viewed images.
- These effects are milder in distraction and attentive-viewing control conditions.
- In novices a 3-phase emotional adaptation may account for mindfulness effectiveness.
Mindfulness − the nonjudgmental awareness of the present experience − is thought to facilitate affective adaptation through increased exposure to emotions and faster extinction of habitual responses. To test this framework, the amplification of the LatePositive Potential (LPP) by negative relative to neutral images was analyzed across stimulus repetitions while 37 novices performed an open monitoring mindfulness exercise. Compared to two active control conditions where attention was either diverted to a distracting task or the stimuli were attended without mindfulness instructions, open monitoring enhanced the initial LPP response to negative stimuli, indicating increased emotional exposure. Across successive repetitions, mindfulness reduced and ultimately removed the affective LPP amplification, suggesting extinction of habitual emotional reactions. This effect arose from reduced negative as well enlarged neutral LPPs. Unlike stimuli from control conditions, the images previously viewed with mindfulness instructions did not elicit affective LPP amplification during subsequent re-exposure, suggesting reconsolidation of stimulus meaning.