Entropy Rules

Mindfulness Power:

Self-Resilience, Emotional Regulation Skills

    Recall that children who are maltreated by their caregivers often have difficulties regulating emotions, as they have lacked the types of experiences that develop good emotion regulation skills (e.g., Bailey et al., 2007). In reviewing the literature on mindfulness and affect, two key perspectives emerged. One is that mindfulness may serve as an emotional resiliency factor. That is, mindfulness can help reduce negative outcomes when emotional distress is present. Another related view is that mindfulness can function as an adaptive form of emotion regulation, actually helping to sustain positive emotions and downregulate distress. We briefly review literature pertaining to both of these perspectives below.


    Harnett, Reid, Loxton, and Lee (2016) investigated mindfulness from the perspective of Gray's revised Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (r-RST; Gray & McNaughton, 2000). First, mindfulness predicted more of the variance (30%) in distress compared to the innate neurobiological affect regulatory systems (e.g., the behavioral inhibition and/or activation systems), which accounted for 10% of the variance in distress. Greater mindfulness was related to lower threat-sensitivity. Mindfulness also moderated the positive association between high threat sensitivity and anxiety levels. Among individuals high in threat sensitivity, individuals low in mindfulness had higher levels of anxiety compared to those high in mindfulness, providing support for the idea that mindfulness buffers the impact of threat sensitivity on subjective anxiety (Harnett et al., 2016). However, from this study alone it is not clear whether those higher in trait mindfulness are less sensitive to threat on a neurological level, or simply have a higher tolerance for, or ability to cope with, distress. As discussed previously, neurological findings on this subject are also mixed (e.g., Hšlzel et al., 2016; Uusberg et al., 2016). It may be that mindfulness serves both functions (i.e., decreasing subjective distress in response to stress, while also directly decreasing stress).
    Cho, Lee, Oh, & Soto (2016) found that trait mindfulness did not directly predict reduced negative emotional reactivity in response to viewing disturbing photographs; however, they found that those higher in mindfulness recovered more quickly from the induced negativity, indicating mindfulness is especially influential in emotional recovery, perhaps by facilitating disengagement from past upsetting stimuli (Cho et al., 2016).
    Feldman, Lavallee, Gildawie, and Greeson (2016) found the individuals who self-reported higher levels of dispositional mindfulness showed reduced emotional reactivity to both a laboratory stressor and daily self-reported lapses in executive functioning. In a laboratory task designed to be frustrating, those reporting greater dispositional mindfulness, especially nonjudgment, showed less congruence between physiological arousal (heart rate) and self-reported distress, indicating mindfulness supports remaining more emotionally neutral even under stress. Additionally, the association between self-reported lapses in executive functioning (e.g., arriving late to a meeting; forgetting to do something important) and end-of-day self-reported dysphoria was moderated by mindfulness such that more mindful individuals had less dysphoria related to lapses of EF during the day, again suggesting that mindfulness allows for a less reactive stance towards personal experience (Feldman et al., 2016).

Emotion Regulation

    As was previously discussed regarding mindfulness and attachment, emotion regulation is common to both constructs (e.g., Cole, Martin, & Dennis, 2004). Difficulties in emotion regulation represent a risk factor vis-à-vis psychopathology. Emotion regulation deficits are key components of personality disorder symptomology, which have been closely linked to problematic attachment and traumatic experiences in early life (American Psychological Association, 1994; Gross & Munoz, 1995; Repetti et al., 2002). Emotion dysregulation plays a role in nearly every clinical syndrome (see Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009 for a review). Importantly, emotion regulation is a dynamic with not only affective elements but cognitive and behavioral aspects as well (e.g., restructuring of maladaptive schemata, decoupling extreme emotions from behavioral impulses, and inhibiting excessive experiential avoidance; Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009).
    Mindfulness has many points of intersection with emotion regulation as a construct. In general, mindfulness is negatively associated with difficulties in emotion regulation and positively associated with use of adaptive emotion regulatory strategies. Mindfulness emphasizes experiential focus and promotes conscious awareness of the distinction between experiential focus and narrative focus (i.e., self-referential cognition). Mindfulness has been contrasted with the problematic emotion regulation strategies including rumination and expressive suppression (i.e., avoiding expressing emotion, an avoidance strategy; Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009).
    Several studies have highlighted differences in effects of implicit versus explicit mindfulness on emotion regulation. Implicit mindfulness can be considered similar to trait or dispositional mindfulness, while explicit mindfulness corresponds most directly to state mindfulness. Implicit mindfulness has been shown to promote positive affect, and reduce negative attentional bias and physiological stress even in emotionally evocative circumstances (Bergeron, Almgren-DorŽ, & Dandeneau, 2016; Bergeron & Dandeneau, 2016). In contrast, under stressful circumstances, explicit mindfulness instructions have been shown to lead to higher self-reported anxiety and negative affect (Bergeron & Dandeneau, 2016). The finding that explicit mindfulness was associated with greater distress is similar to other findings that the observing facet of mindfulness is associated with more symptoms of psychological distress (e.g., Cebolla et al., 2010; Royuela-Colomer & Calvete, 2016), could be explained as a methodological artifact based on the meditation naivety of the sample. Bergeron and colleagues (2016) experiment was designed to elicit anxiety and negative affect by asking participants to think about the worst experience of their lives. If participants were meditation na•ve (which we do not know for certain given that data was not collected) they may have been unpracticed in subtle aspects of mindfulness, such as nonjudgment and nonreactivity. This also highlights a potential theoretical tension in the mindfulness and emotion discussion; mindfulness may not reduce negative emotion that arises in response to a legitimately distressing stimulus, but rather may increase the perceived acuity of the distress as a person begins to pay closer attention to their present experiences.
    Another study demonstrated experimentally that mindfulness could effectively regulate explicit emotion, and also positively influence implicit emotion regulation. Remmers, Topolinski, and Koole (2016) induced a sad mood in a sample of healthy volunteers. Afterwards participants were exposed to one of three interventions: mindfulness, distraction, or rumination. Participants experienced improved implicit and explicit mood in both mindfulness and distraction groups. Individuals in the mindfulness condition showed greater congruence of implicit and explicit mood. Across conditions, trait mindfulness was associated with worsened implicit, but not explicit, mood (Remmers et al., 2016). These findings may not generalize beyond the ÒhealthyÓ sample studied here, but considered with other evidence demonstrating an ability to maintain explicit equanimity in the face of implicit challenge (e.g., Feldman et al, 2016), mindfulness may also help survivors of child maltreatment implicitly regulate emotions. The ability to downregulate negative implicit emotion and/or decouple implicit and explicit mood could be extremely important to adult survivors of child maltreatment who may frequently be implicitly triggered in parenting contexts.
    Another mechanism through which mindfulness could influence emotion regulation is by implicitly reducing experiential avoidance. Pepping, Duvenage, Cronin, and Lyons (2016) found evidence that mindfulness may be associated with fewer symptoms of psychopathology by way of reducing emotional avoidance. Greater trait mindfulness was associated with fewer self-reported symptoms of both internalizing and externalizing disorders, and this association was mediated by expressive suppression (i.e., inhibiting external signs of emotion in the presence of internally felt emotion). While the study did not account for possible child maltreatment, results support the notion of treating trauma survivors with MBIs, since avoidance has been shown to play such an influential role perpetuating trauma-related distress (Pepping et al., 2016).
    Another study used a daily diary approach to study the relative impacts of three emotion regulation strategies (mindfulness, emotion suppression, and cognitive reappraisal) on the experience of positive and negative affect in daily life for a sample of primarily young people (Brockman, Ciarrochi, Parker, & Kashdan, 2016). They discovered that daily mindfulness predicted less negative affect and more positive affect. The opposite was true of emotion suppression. Additionally, the third strategy, cognitive reappraisal, predicted more positive affect but was unrelated to negative affect. Daily use of reappraisal strategies was predictive of less daily mindfulness. The level of overlap between strategies was minimal (Brockman et al., 2016).
    In summary, the beneficial associations between mindfulness and fewer difficulties in affect regulation appear to be explained by mindfulness' ability to buffer the impact of difficult experiences on subjective experience of distress (Feldman et al., 2016; Harnett et al., 2016). Mindfulness also appears to facilitate recovery from distressing emotions (Cho et al., 2016) Mindfulness appears to be most effective at reducing distress, leading to less negative affect, somatic anxiety, and physiological reactivity. Findings regarding the differential impact of implicit (i.e., trait) or explicit (i.e., state) mindfulness on emotions is mixed. It appears explicit mindfulness of distressing stimuli leads to more acute subjective distress compared to implicit mindfulness of distressing stimuli (Bergeron & Dandeneau, 2016). Still other studies found trait mindfulness to be associated with worsened implicit, but not explicit, mood (Remmers et al., 2016). Explicit mindful attention to distressing content may have the reverse effect and lead to heightened emotion, at least in the short term (e.g., Bergeron et al., 2016). However, compared to other emotion regulation strategies, such as distraction and cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness appears to be more broadly beneficial. It may also counteract dysfunctional regulation strategies such as emotional suppression and avoidance (Brockman et al., 2016; Pepping et al,. 2016; Remmers et al., 2016). Taken together, this evidence supports the idea that mindfulness may help adult survivors of child maltreatment who may struggle with poor implicit mood and tendencies towards emotional suppression or avoidance.

⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.