authored by Andrew Chapman
MINDFULNESS AND EMOTION REGULATION
Over the past three decades, mindfulness-based interventions have spread rapidly through the fields of medicine, mental health, and education as a way to reduce toxic stress and impulsivity and increase emotion regulation, executive function, empathy, and overall physical, emotional and cognitive well-being. Although clinical research surrounding mindfulness interventions is still in its infancy, empirical evidence is beginning to show overwhelming evidence in support of the neurobiological, psychological, and social benefits of mindfulness practice: improvements in immune and brain function; increased attention, self-regulation, memory and learning capacity; better quality of relationships between parents and children; and an increased ability to prevent relapse and recurrence of major depression among many other mental health-related disorders (e.g. substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, etc.).
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is fundamentally a science of attention training. It is the practice of bringing attention to the direct experience of what is happening right now. Sustained practice cultivates the ability to drop beneath compulsive thinking and emotional reactivity into a more direct experience of feeling and sensation. The fruition of practice is a sense of being less scattered, less caught up in doing and in fixing, and less likely to get locked into fixed afflictive patterns (e.g. obsession, self-harshness/shame, impulsivity, worry/fear, rumination, rage).
By definition, “mindfulness is the ability to objectively monitor the arising and passing of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, within the framework of present-time awareness.”
The objective vantage point, mentioned in the definition listed above, is a key and essential element of mindfulness practice. While we meditate, we are encouraged to not only pay attention to what is happening “right now,” but we are also asked to pay attention with an attitude of non-judgment. Bringing forth a non-judgmental quality of awareness during meditation helps to serve as the foundation for a more objective, observational, and less self-enmeshed understanding of our present-time thinking, emotional, and feeling states. The non-judgmental quality of awareness developed in mindfulness practice helps us foster an attitude of acceptance and tolerance that is essential for downregulating overwhelming emotion and increasing one’s capacity for overall emotional resilience.
Neuroscience researcher, Melvin Conner, tells us that the human nervous system is conditioned by a subtle, but constant, state of stress. His findings indicate that the chronic internal state of the human nervous system can be best categorized as a vague mixture of anxiety and desire, best described by the phrase, “I want,” spoken with or without an object for a verb. This sense of wanting, anticipating, preparing, or “leaning into the next moment”, often results in feelings of dis-ease, ungroundedness, insecurity, or subtle anxiety. In order to deal with these feelings, we often find ourselves participating in mal-adaptive behavioral patterns that bring forth short term relief (i.e. drug/alcohol addiction, overworking, overeating, or generalized “acting out” behaviors) rather than acknowledging and working to tolerate and regulate the underlying stress of the nervous system.
In other words, as we do our jobs, run errands, play with our kids, and take a walk in the park we are often not present for life’s events, but instead, we are waiting for or preparing for the “next thing” on our list, constantly caught in future-focused agendas. This habitual type of anticipation and preparing, when unaddressed, can lead to intense emotional activation (i.e. anxiety, fear and overwhelm).
On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of present-time awareness can also lead our attention towards remembering or replaying past mistakes, or overrun with intrusive self-obsessed thoughts about our worth, position, or place in the world. When unchecked, these patterns of guilt, regret, resentment, or shame can contribute to intense depressive episodes and/or existential crises.
Modern day neuroscience tells us that whatever we pay attention to gets magnified. If we spend too much time tending to stressful, worrisome, or shameful thoughts, we start to live from this reality, and even worse, we start to react—i.e. behave—in accordance with this reality. When our attention is caught up in distress, it’s like we are caught kicking and screaming at the scary movie in the theater because we forgot that we are simply an observer of the film, rather than a character in it. One application of mindfulness practice is that it helps us “break the addiction” to the urgency of the thinking mind and redirect our attention out of destructive cycles of thinking (i.e. returning the attention to the breath/body).
At the same time, however, we don’t want to only learn to ignore our emotional and mental distress. If we only use mindfulness to ignore stressful, worrisome, or shameful thoughts, by moving our attention back to the breath, we can often find ourselves in denial, lacking responsibility and acceptance of painful emotions. When practiced regularly, mindfulness helps us balance this dialectic between acceptance and change. Mindfulness effectively helps us learn how to both downregulate emotional activation by shifting our attention away from distressing and ruminating thoughts, while simultaneously feeling into difficult emotions and learning how to develop distress tolerance, acceptance, and self-empathy.
By training our attention with mindfulness, we can begin to identify where our attention wanders (e.x. to thoughts of past regret, future worry, self-critique), what type of physical, emotional, or cognitive reaction arises as a result (e.x. tight body, sad emotion, intrusive thoughts), and then how to best respond (e.x. relax and breathe into the body, acknowledge and access the emotion, care for and regulate the emotion, and allow the emotion pass without reactivating). In this regard, mindfulness is not only a skill of emotion regulation, but it is also a skill of personal accountability—allowing the practitioner to honestly, and objectively, engage with the present time experience in order to examine possible flaws in perception or reactive habits of thinking.
Also, it is promising to note, mindfulness researchers, Desrosiers, Vine, Kelmanski, & Nolen-Hoeksema (2013), found that mindfulness skills constitute a set of foundational, or core, abilities that promote other cognitive or behaviors skills, such as the skills taught and employed through Cognitive Behavioral and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies, as well as attunement and co-regulation skills that are essential for forming and maintaining intimacy and authenticity in social relationships. In this regard, if one hopes to offer clients cognitive-behavioral or dialectical-behavioral strategies to regulate emotion and work towards therapy goals, the qualities of self-awareness, distress tolerance, and empathy that result from mindfulness practice will be an essential and primary part of these treatment methods.
How do I Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness of Breathing
Find a comfortable way to sit. Adjust your posture so that your spine is straight without being rigid or stiff. Allow the rest of your body to be relaxed around the upright spine. Rest your hands in your lap or on your legs. Allow your eyes to gently close. Bring full attention to the physical sensations of sitting still.
Allow your breathing to be natural. Bringing attention to your head, release any tension in the face, soften the eyes, and relax the jaw. Scanning the body slowly downward, release any tension found throughout your body. Feel into the relaxed weight of your body sitting on the cushion or chair.
Bringing your full attention to the present-time experience, acknowledge the full range of sensations that are happening in the moment.
Allowing all the experiences to be as they are, redirect your attention to the sensations of the breath. Let the other sense experiences fall to the background as you bring the awareness of breathing to the foreground.
Take a few moments to investigate where you feel the breath most easily (at the nose, the chest, or the stomach). Find the place where you feel the breath coming and going, and use that as the point of focus. Try to pick one point of focus and stick with it.
Breathing in, know that you are breathing in. Breathing out, know that you are breathing out.
A simple way to stay focused is by quietly acknowledging in your mind, “in” on the inhalation and “out” on the exhalation, or using the phrase “rising” and “falling” when noting the breath at the chest or stomach.
Of course, you will quickly realize that your attention will not stay with the breath; the attention will be drawn back into thinking over and over. The mind’s tendency to wander is both acceptable and normal.
Each time the attention wanders back to the thinking aspect of the mind, gently redirect it back to the breath.
While you are training the mind in present-time awareness of the breath, with the mind’s almost constant wandering and returning, it is important to bring a quality of kindness and understanding to the practice.
Try to be friendly toward your experience. Of course the attention wanders. Try not to take it personally; it’s not your fault. That’s just what the untrained mind does. It will take some time and perseverance to train the attention to stay with the chosen object of awareness.
Bring the attention back to the simple experience of the breath over and over. Breathing in, know that the breath is coming into the body. Breathing out, know that the breath is leaving the body.