“A clear understanding of negative emotions dismisses them.” – Vernon Howard
Interest and research on the use of meditation, mindfulness, and other contemplative practices to benefit physical, mental, and emotional well being continues to grow. There is increased awareness amongst both researchers and the general public that one does not need to subscribe to any particular religious belief system to effectively integrate mindfulness-based/contemplative practices into daily living. There are ways of combining various aspects from different mindfulness-based practices (as Kabat-Zinn has done in the development of MBSR) to create integrated treatments that are intended to produce specific positive benefits.
In April 2012, a study was published in the APA journal, Emotion, that endeavored to determine the potential reduction in negative emotional behaviors and promotion of prosocial responses that an integrated contemplative training program may produce. A dialogue in 2000 between the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist practitioners and scholars served as the foundation for asking the question of whether or not a secular version of Buddhist practices could be useful in the reduction of destructive emotions within the modern Western population. Based upon this discussion, an author of the current study collaborated with a Buddhist contemplative scholar and various emotion researchers to develop an intensive, short-term training program that integrated secular meditation practices with interventions and knowledge from the current body of research on emotion.
Researchers reflected upon past studies that have demonstrated benefits of mindfulness meditation trainings in effectively reducing anxiety in those with anxiety disorders, decreasing prevalence of depressive relapse in those with recurrent major depression, reductions in suicidal attempts/gestures in those with BPD, and decreases in various other negative physical and psychological states. While evidence exists for the benefits of mindfulness meditation in promoting well being and reducing harmful behaviors, Kemeny and colleagues (2012) have suggested that such interventions have yet to incorporate up-to-date knowledge on emotions and emotion regulation.
Contemplative Emotion Training Program
The contemplative emotion training program recruited 82 female schoolteachers to participate in this 42-hour training program, delivered over the course of eight weeks. The women were randomly assigned to either the treatment group (contemplative emotion training program) or to the control group (wait-list). Female schoolteachers were specifically chosen for this study for two reasons: (1) due to the inherent stress of their occupation, they may experience immediate usefulness of emotional skills training, and (2) the potential secondary benefits the training may have on their students.
The program was led in a group format by a meditation expert and a psychological trainer with expertise in leading meditation and support groups. These group sessions integrated educational presentations, discussion, and practices connected to emotional and meditation skills. Participants were also instructed to engage in a meditation practice on their own, with a recommendation of 20-25 minutes each day; all participants kept online diaries recording the length and type of meditation practice. Three different categories of meditative practice were utilized:
- Mindfulness: involving a close, focused, and experiential examination of thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
- Directive: intended to promote empathy and compassion – oriented toward benefitting others.
- Concentration: involving sustained focused attention on a specific cognitive or sensory experience.
The intervention program included guided instruction on ways of understanding features, precipitating events, and consequences of emotions; tools for recognizing emotions in oneself and others; understanding the relationships between thoughts and emotions; and techniques to aid in the recognition of personal emotional patterns. You may notice that many of the emotion-based aspects of the training program are similar to DBT‘s emotion regulation skills and are derived from the basic principles of emotional intelligence.
Results were obtained through data analysis from responses to various self-report measures on depression, trait anxiety, overall trait negative affect, rumination, and mindfulness. Basic findings indicated the following:
Self-reported depression declined strongly in the contemplative emotion training group, compared to the control group, from the beginning to the end of the 8-week training. Additionally, significant reduction in depressive symptoms were retained at a 5-month follow-up assessment. Before the training, 46% of the total sample reported mild to high levels of depression. As little as 14% of the women in the treatment group who reported significant levels of depression at the beginning remained depressed at the end. This is in contrast to 83% of the women in the control group who reported elevated depressive symptoms at the beginning of the study remaining depressed 8-weeks later.
(2) Trait Anxiety
Trait anxiety refers to relatively stable individual differences in proclivities toward anxiety and implies an overall proclivity to respond to real or perceived threats in the environment with anxiety. Researchers found that the training group’s self-reported trait anxiety significantly decreased as a result of the 8-week program and these effects were maintained 5 months later.
(3) Trait Negative Affect
Overall trait negative affect is considered to a general tendency to experience negative emotions, such as irritability, anger, sadness, fear, etc. Similarly to trait anxiety, it is considered to be a “trait” due to its relatively stable and enduring nature – part of one’s personality, as opposed to a more temporary emotional state. Participants in the contemplative emotion training group reported significantly lower trait negative affect at the end of the course, as compared with the control group (and these effects were also maintained at the follow-up assessment).
Rumination is a cognitive process that involves engaging in repetitive negative thoughts and focusing excessively on past negative experiences or failures. A tendency toward rumination is associated with increased risk of depression, which can result in decreased motivation, reduced interest in activities that one used to enjoy, difficulties with eating or sleeping, etc. Researchers predicted that involvement in the mindfulness aspect of the training would decrease rumination by promoting a nonjudgmental and accepting focus on present moment experiences – as opposed to becoming lost in unproductive negative thoughts about the past or future. As predicted, those in the treatment group demonstrated decreased levels of rumination at the end of the study and maintained these gains over time.
Mindfulness involves a nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment – paying attention to one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and acceptance. The individuals in the training group demonstrated increased mindfulness as a result of full participation in the 8-week course and maintained this improvement over time. Interestingly, researchers found that “the greater the number of days individuals reported practicing meditation for the requested amount of time at home (20 min. or more) across the 8-week training period, the lower their trait anxiety, and the higher their mindfulness” (Kemeny et al., 2012, p. 343).
Studies continue to demonstrate evidence in support of the positive benefits of learning about mindfulness, practicing meditation, and understanding emotions. Consider how willing you are to truly commit to integrating a regular contemplative practice such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness exercises, or focused awareness of emotions into your life. If you find yourself struggling with painful experiences such as rumination, anxiety, or depression, take a moment to reflect on the notion that you have the power to end this needless internal suffering through seeking effective treatment and participating in your own recovery. Your life is occurring right now. Each passing moment is yet another fresh opportunity to use emotions constructively, let go of negative thoughts, and embrace the richness of possibilities that emerge when you truly connect with the present moment.
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Kemeny, M. E., Foltz, C., Cullen, M., Jennings, P., Gillath, O., et al. (2012). Contemplative/Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses. Emotion, 12, 338-350.
Wilner, J. (2012). You Don’t Have to be Buddhist to Experience the Benefits of Meditation. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 18, 2012, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/positive-psychology/2012/05/you-dont-have-to-be-buddhist-to-experience-the-benefits-of-meditation
Featured image: Serene Calmness by Gane / CC BY 2.0