Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning

Tags: , , ,

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives