Reduce Stress and Improve Emotion Regulation with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“By recognizing and identifying emotions as they arise, you are able to see how your thoughts can spiral you into agitated emotional states. . . Being mindful of your emotions will help you accept them and also stay in control of them. It’s from that place you will be able to refocus, rebalance, and recalibrate.” – Tris Thorpe
Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve emotion regulation. Practitioners demonstrate the ability to fully sense and experience emotions, but respond to them in more appropriate and adaptive ways. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control their responses to emotions. The ability of mindfulness training to improve emotion regulation is thought to be the basis for a wide variety of benefits that mindfulness provides to mental health and the treatment of mental illness especially depression and anxiety disorders.
Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. Indeed, mindfulness has been shown to be helpful in treating and preventing burnout, increasing resilience, and improving sleep. It is not known if stress reduction my be part of the mechanism by which mindfulness improves the control of emotions.
In today’s Research News article “Perceived stress mediates the relationship between mindfulness and negative affect variability: A randomized controlled trial among middle-aged to older adults.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6534144/), Colgan and colleagues recruited mildly stressed older adults aged 50 – 85 years and randomly assigned them to either receive a 6-week mindfulness meditation program or to a wait-list control condition. Meditation training occurred one-on-one for 1.5 hours weekly for 6 weeks and involved home practice. The participants were measured before and after training for perceived stress, positive and negative emotions, variability of negative emotions, and expectancies about the effects of meditation.
They found that in comparison to baseline and the wait-list control group the meditation group had significant decreases in perceived stress and negative emotion variability. In addition, the greater the change in perceived stress the greater the change in negative emotion variability. A mediation analysis revealed that meditation practice was reduced negative emotion variability directly and indirectly by reducing perceived stress which, in turn, reduced negative emotion variability.
It should be pointed out that there wasn’t an active control condition which opens up the possibility that placebo (subject expectancy) effects could be responsible for the results. But, the participants reported expectancies regarding the effects of meditation that were no different than the expectancies of control participants. This suggests that placebo effects were not responsible for the results.
Negative emotion variability can be viewed as an indicator of emotion regulation. If indeed an individual has better ability to deal with emotions then it would be expected that emotions would not build upon themselves and thereby be less variable. So, the present results are in line with previous research that meditation practice improves emotion regulation. They also suggest that it does so, in part, by its ability to reduce perceived stress.
So, reduce stress and improve emotion regulation with mindfulness.
“Through mindfulness you can learn to turn your negative emotions into your greatest teachers and sources of strength. 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 towards the wounded parts of ourselves and make wise choices about how to respond to ourselves and to life. It’s a paradox that we all must understand: It is by turning towards negative emotions that we find relief from them – not by turning away.” – Melli O’Brien
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Colgan, D. D., Klee, D., Memmott, T., Proulx, J., & Oken, B. (2019). Perceived stress mediates the relationship between mindfulness and negative affect variability: A randomized controlled trial among middle-aged to older adults. Stress and health : journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 35(1), 89–97. doi:10.1002/smi.2845
Despite the interest in mindfulness over the past 20 years, studies have only recently begun to examine mindfulness in older adults. The primary aim of this study was to evaluate pretreatment to post-treatment change in negative affect variability (NAV) following a mindfulness training among 134 mildly stressed, middle-aged to older adults. The secondary aim was to assess if the effects of mindfulness training on NAV would be partially explained by pretreatment to post-treatment reductions in perceived stress, a trend that would be congruent with several stress models. In this randomized control trial, participants were assigned to either a 6-week mindfulness meditation training programme or to a wait list control. Ecological momentary assessment, a data capturing technique that queries about present moment experiences in real time, captured NAV. Mixed-model ANOVAs and a path analysis were conducted. Participants in the mindfulness meditation training significantly reduced NAV when compared with wait list control participants. Further, there was a significant indirect group effect on reductions in NAV through change in perceived stress. Few studies have tested mechanisms of action, which connect changes that occur during mindfulness training with psychological outcomes in older adults. Understanding the mechanisms by which mindfulness enhances well-being may optimize interventions.