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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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