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How does mindfulness improve self-control and executive functioning?

MeditationWe have emo­tions for a rea­son. Anger in response to injus­tice can sig­nal that the sit­u­a­tion needs to change; sad­ness in response to loss can sig­nal that we’d like to keep the peo­ple we love in our lives.

It’s when we rumi­nate, or get caught up in our emo­tions, that they might become mal­adap­tive. That’s when emo­tion reg­u­la­tion can be help­ful and healthy.

Pre­vi­ous research has shown that mind­ful­ness can be an effec­tive tool to help reg­u­late our emo­tions. But why? A new mod­el sug­gests that the abil­i­ty to con­trol one’s behavior—a con­cept that researchers call exec­u­tive control—may play a role.

In a recent paper pub­lished in Cur­rent Direc­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, researcher Rim­ma Teper and her col­leagues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to write that, despite the com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that med­i­ta­tion “emp­ties our head” of emo­tions, mind­ful­ness actu­al­ly helps us become more aware and accept­ing of emo­tion­al signals—which helps us to con­trol our behav­ior.

I talked with researcher Rim­ma Teper about how mind­ful­ness relates to emo­tion reg­u­la­tion, and how exec­u­tive con­trol fits into the pic­ture.

Emi­ly Nau­man: In your paper, you write that mind­ful­ness helps us change our atti­tude toward an emo­tion, rather than focus­ing on chang­ing an emo­tion itself. What is the dif­fer­ence between chang­ing our rela­tion­ship to an emo­tion and chang­ing the emo­tion itself? What’s ben­e­fi­cial about the for­mer?

Rim­ma Teper: I should start off by say­ing that I am of the view that emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences are most­ly a good thing! We, as humans, evolved to have emo­tion­al respons­es to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions that actu­al­ly help us in our every­day lives.

For instance, feel­ing fear when you see a snake sig­nals that you should stay away. Feel­ing love for your fam­i­ly and friends pro­motes behav­iors that fos­ter close rela­tion­ships. Of course, there are cas­es where emo­tion­al respons­es may be overblown, or maladaptive—and this is where emo­tion reg­u­la­tion becomes a nec­es­sary tool. Mind­ful­ness is just one strat­e­gy that can help with emo­tion reg­u­la­tion.

As you men­tioned, most emo­tion reg­u­la­tion strate­gies that peo­ple engage in change the nature of the emo­tion. These strate­gies may include reeval­u­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion that elicit­ed the emo­tion, or sup­press­ing the emo­tion alto­geth­er through dis­trac­tion or some oth­er means. Mind­ful­ness, on the oth­er hand, encour­ages peo­ple to observe their emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences with­out try­ing to change them.

I think that one ben­e­fit of this approach is that it dis­cards the ten­den­cy of “label­ing” one’s emo­tions as good or bad. It encour­ages peo­ple to sim­ply observe the con­tents of their mind. In this way, I think that mind­ful­ness allows for greater self-insight.

So for instance, if I feel angry, I might try to observe my thoughts with­out get­ting caught up in them. I would also pay atten­tion to the bod­i­ly sen­sa­tions that accom­pa­ny that emo­tion, like my heart beat­ing quick­ly. By pay­ing atten­tion to way in which the emo­tion unfolds in your body, step-by-step, mind­ful peo­ple are able delay and damp­en the rumi­na­tion or overblown reac­tion that often accom­pa­nies it.

EN: What is exec­u­tive con­trol, and why did you sus­pect that exec­u­tive con­trol plays a role in the link between mind­ful­ness and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion?

RT: Exec­u­tive con­trol can often be equat­ed with willpow­er. There are a num­ber of skills that fall under the umbrel­la of exec­u­tive con­trol, but the one that is specif­i­cal­ly relat­ed to mind­ful­ness is the abil­i­ty to inhib­it one’s impuls­es.

Pre­vi­ous research, includ­ing some of our own, has sug­gest­ed that mind­ful­ness may help to improve exec­u­tive con­trol. In addi­tion, a lot of pre­vi­ous research has also linked mind­ful­ness to improve­ments in emo­tion reg­u­la­tion.

But no one real­ly knew exact­ly how mind­ful­ness improved emo­tion reg­u­la­tion. This “gap” in the research made us won­der whether exec­u­tive con­trol might be the path­way through which mind­ful peo­ple are bet­ter able to reg­u­late their emo­tions.

After all, exec­u­tive con­trol involves the inhi­bi­tion of auto­mat­ic or impul­sive behav­iors. And for most of us, get­ting car­ried away with our emo­tions is some­thing we do auto­mat­i­cal­ly and with­out notice. When we feel sad or angry, we often let our emo­tions snow­ball. We also often rumi­nate about neg­a­tive things that have hap­pened to us. So to us, it made sense that exec­u­tive con­trol would be involved in curb­ing these mal­adap­tive pat­terns.

EN: How have peo­ple thought about mind­ful­ness and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion in the past, and what insights does your mod­el bring to our under­stand­ing of how mind­ful­ness and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion are relat­ed?

RT: The link between mind­ful­ness and improved emo­tion reg­u­la­tion is cer­tain­ly not a new one. What our mod­el does is exam­ine the nature of this rela­tion­ship and helps to under­stand how mind­ful­ness may improve emo­tion reg­u­la­tion.

There is often a mis­con­cep­tion that mind­ful­ness sim­ply leads to less emo­tion­al­i­ty, or that mind­ful peo­ple expe­ri­ence less emo­tion.

Our mod­el pro­pos­es that this is not the case. Specif­i­cal­ly, we sug­gest that mind­ful­ness leads to improve­ments in emo­tion reg­u­la­tion not by elim­i­nat­ing or reduc­ing emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence, but rather through a present-moment aware­ness and accep­tance of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. This sort of atten­tive and open stance towards one’s own emo­tions and thoughts allows the indi­vid­ual to still expe­ri­ence emo­tion, but also to detect emo­tions ear­ly on and stop them from spi­ral­ing out of con­trol.

EN: How can we apply the insights of this mod­el to our dai­ly lives? What’s use­ful about under­stand­ing that mind­ful­ness helps us become aware of and accept emo­tions, rather than “emp­ty­ing our head” of emo­tions?

RT: As I men­tioned before, emo­tions are usu­al­ly a good thing! But there are also cas­es when they can be dis­rup­tive and mal­adap­tive.

So rather than get­ting rid of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence alto­geth­er, our mod­el pro­vides insight into the ways in which we can pre­vent or lim­it the dis­rup­tive aspects of emo­tions, like rumi­na­tion. And this can be done by mon­i­tor­ing your thoughts and sen­sa­tions, but also by adopt­ing a non-judg­men­tal atti­tude towards them.

emily-nauman- Pub­lished here by cour­tesy of Greater Good, an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Emi­ly Nau­man is a GGSC research assis­tant. She com­plet­ed her under­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Ober­lin Col­lege with a dou­ble major in Psy­chol­o­gy and French, and has pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a research assis­tant in Oberlin’s Psy­cholin­guis­tics lab and Boston University’s Eat­ing Dis­or­ders Pro­gram.

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