Study finds a key ingredient in mindfulness training: Acceptance (not acquiescence)

Life can be stress­ful. Whether it’s the stress that comes with hav­ing too much work to do in too lit­tle time, ful­fill­ing care­giv­ing oblig­a­tions, or deal­ing with a major ill­ness or set­back, some­times it can be hard to cope.

In response to stress, many peo­ple today are turn­ing to med­i­ta­tion or mind­ful­ness apps (myself includ­ed). But not all mind­ful­ness prac­tice is equal­ly effec­tive for com­bat­ing stress, a new study sug­gests. It’s pos­si­ble that some of our prac­tices may be miss­ing a vital ingre­di­ent: acceptance.

In this study, researchers ran­dom­ly assigned 137 stressed adults of var­i­ous ages and eth­nic­i­ties to one of three pro­grams: an eight-week Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) course, where they learned to mind­ful­ly pay atten­tion to their present-moment expe­ri­ences in an accept­ing, non­judg­men­tal way; an MBSR course with­out instruc­tions on accep­tance; or no course. The cours­es includ­ed many lessons—for exam­ple, how to pay atten­tion to your breath and your body sen­sa­tions, and how to eat food or take a walk mindfully—as well as prac­tice time out­side of class. Before, dur­ing, and after­wards, par­tic­i­pants report­ed five times dai­ly about how stressed they felt in the moment and whether they’d expe­ri­enced a stress­ful event since their last report.

Though all of the groups expe­ri­enced less stress and few­er inci­dents of feel­ing stressed over time, the peo­ple who took the full MBSR course had a sig­nif­i­cant­ly steep­er improve­ment than the oth­er two groups.

Learn­ing how to accept your present-moment expe­ri­ence is real­ly impor­tant for reduc­ing stress,” says Emi­ly Lind­say, one of the study’s coau­thors. “It seems to be a key ele­ment of mind­ful­ness training.”

Mind­ful­ness prac­tices that specif­i­cal­ly empha­size accep­tance teach us a non­judg­men­tal atti­tude toward our experiences—meaning, learn­ing not to label our thoughts, feel­ings, or expe­ri­ences as good or bad, and try­ing not to change or resist them in any way. While many mind­ful­ness cours­es include instruc­tions in accep­tance as par for the course, those that don’t may not be as effective.

This find­ing fits in with oth­er research on the cen­tral­i­ty of accep­tance in mind­ful­ness prac­tice, says Lind­say. Peo­ple who learn to accept and not just notice their expe­ri­ences become less prone to mind-wan­der­ing, which has been tied to well-being, and less reac­tive to stress—meaning, they show reduc­tions in sys­tolic blood pres­sure, the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, and feel­ings of stress in a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion. Her recent study adds to these results by mon­i­tor­ing par­tic­i­pants dai­ly, help­ing to show that accep­tance makes a dif­fer­ence in every­day life sit­u­a­tions and not just in the laboratory.

Why might accep­tance be impor­tant? Lind­say argues that when peo­ple accept dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences (like stress), it allows the expe­ri­ences to “run their course and dis­si­pate,” while resist­ing them only makes them stronger. And, she adds, accept­ing stress helps peo­ple to stop focus­ing only on what’s wrong and to notice oth­er feel­ings, sen­sa­tions, and thoughts occur­ring at the same time, enabling them to see the “big­ger picture.”

Stress dimin­ish­es as you take in more of your expe­ri­ence,” she says. “That’s the trans­for­ma­tive part.”

Accep­tance is not about acqui­esc­ing to your fate, though, says Lindsay—like get­ting a diag­no­sis of a ter­mi­nal ill­ness and just accept­ing that you’re going to die. That kind of “accep­tance” leads to worse out­comes, she says. Nor is it about accept­ing poor treat­ment from oth­er peo­ple. It’s more about accept­ing your inter­nal experience—your thoughts and feelings—which informs you about how to respond to your exter­nal cir­cum­stances in a wis­er way. For exam­ple, if you feel angry and accept your anger in the moment, it may pre­vent you from lash­ing out at some­one and help you see that your feel­ings aren’t their fault.

Lind­say allows that some peo­ple find it hard to accept their unpleas­ant thoughts and feel­ings, but MBSR cours­es offer tech­niques that can help. For exam­ple, teach­ing peo­ple to name their feel­ings or thoughts in a calm, gen­tle tone (“I’m feel­ing sad and that’s OK”) can pro­mote more accep­tance, she says, as can prac­tic­ing self-compassion.

Clear­ly, we need to empha­size accep­tance tech­niques a lit­tle more,” says Lind­say. That’s true in for­mal pro­grams like MBSR, but also in our own indi­vid­ual practice.

I, for one, plan to do just that.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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