Mindfulness—moment by moment non-judgmental awareness of the body and its sensations—has been associated with better emotional management and self-regulation. (For a definition of mindfulness, see our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain‘.) Here is just a smattering of the emerging academic research on the relationship between mindfulness and emotional maturity:
- Shauna L. Shapiro, Gary E. Schwartz, and Ginny Bonner, “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 21, no. 6 (December 1, 1998): 581–99, doi:10.1023/A:1018700829825.
- Ortner, C. N., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31(4), 271–283.
- Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252–272.
- Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.
But exactly how does mindfulness help with emotional regulation and maturity?
First of all, mindfulness can help us better to manage our emotional states simply by calming us down. Research shows that when mindfulness is practiced in the context of meditative breathing (i.e., spending time taking deep breaths, bringing your entire attention to the present-moment sensation of breathing), it helps to slow down the heart-rate and underscore feelings of safety, and thus to shift the brain away from the types of fight-flight-freeze responses that hijack the higher cognitive functions. (For more about this, see our earlier article “The Power of Positive Breathing.”) When we are calm, we are able to think clearer, and thus not be as subject to emotional impulses.
Secondly, the skills that mindfulness helps us to develop – skills like attentional control, self-awareness and meta-cognition – all involve the same mental muscles involved in emotional maturity and self-regulation.
A third way that mindfulness can help with emotional self-regulation is to increase the gap between stimulus and response. Research shows that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are recognized by the conscious mind. (See our earlier post “The Emotional Body” for evidence of this.) For example, resentment may be felt in a tightening of the neck; fear may be felt in a speeding up of the heart-rate; anxiety may be experienced as an increase in the rhythm of one’s breathing. Because of this link between emotion and physiology, achieving moment-by-moment awareness of the body and its sensations (mindfulness) can give a person advanced warning about ways their emotions are being triggered. This advanced warning gives us time to engage in emotional self-monitoring and ask ourselves what the healthiest response actually is, instead of waiting until our emotions overwhelm us and we simply react. As Viktor Frankl observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
A fourth way mindfulness can help regulate emotions was suggested by Dr. Ron Siegel’s in his video “The Science of Mindfulness” below. Dr. Siegel, who is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, explains that often our approach to emotional discomfort is to do things that make us feel happier, and thus to decrease the intensity of discomfort and pain. Mindfulness works the other way round, by increasing our ability to bear with discomfort, both on the physical and emotional level. When our capacity to bear with emotional discomfort is enlarged, we are less likely to react to our emotions or to let them control us.
But how does mindfulness help us bear with emotional discomfort? In the video below (from 32:00 to 39:40) Dr. Siegel shows that mindfulness enables us to develop the cognitive muscles by which we can observe, as if from the outside, the parts that make up emotion. Every emotion is basically a body sensation and a thought. By practicing brain-based mindfulness (moment-by-moment non-judgmental aware of our cognitions), we can notice our thoughts coming and passing, but we don’t have to get drawn up into the thought stream either by fighting them or personalizing them. Instead, we can keep our attention at the sensory level. By being attentive to what is happening at the sensory level, we can notice our body’s sensations, including the sensations created by emotions, but we can treat these sensations in the same way that someone who is meditating might treat a fly or an inch: by objectively observing them but not getting caught up. Thus, when we notice the physiological correlates of emotion as they are experienced in the body, instead of letting these conditions dictate our behavior (i.e., giving into the emotion), and instead of fighting against them (thinking, “Oh my gosh, why am I feeling this!”), we can simply observe and be present with the feeling.