Most of us welcome sadness and pain about as much as a root canal — without Novocaine. They’re uncomfortable, unpleasant, and just no fun at all, but let’s face it, negative emotions are an unavoidable part of life. When coupled with all the other things life throws at us, they can often lead to depression.
Depression is a complex, episodic, and recurring illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity. When someone is in the grips of depression, getting well is only half of the battle. Staying well is the other half.
When a person is depressed, upsetting feelings are part of the condition. When someone has recovered from a depressive episode and is just going about their normal life, negative emotions are part of that normal life. A beloved pet dies. A good friend moves away. The company downsizes and eliminates their job. Challenging experiences can and do happen at any time to any of us. Emotions over normal life events can be the trigger that starts a downward spiral leading somebody back into depression.
Negative emotions are part of the universal experience of being human. There’s no way people can avoid them, nor is it healthy to try. However, people can learn to work with and develop a different relationship with their emotions, which helps maintain mental balance and prevent depression.
You do this through the practice of mindfulness.
What Exactly Is Mindfulness?
Being mindful means being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening without judgment. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:
The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
There are many different philosophies of mindfulness, but the basic elements that most include are:
- Becoming aware of perceptions, thoughts, feelings and remaining present with them, even when they’re unpleasant or painful.
- Observing your inner experience without reaction or judgment.
- Turning off your autopilot and consciously choosing thoughts and actions with awareness.
- Naming, describing or labeling your feelings with words.
Proven Mental Benefits of Mindfulness
According to the American Psychological Asociation, research on mindfulness has identified these benefits:
Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.
Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.
Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety, and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity, as measured by fMRI after watching sad films (Farb et al., 2010).
The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression, and somatic distress compared with the control group. In addition, the fMRI data indicated that the mindfulness group had less neural reactivity when they were exposed to the films than the control group, and they displayed distinctly different neural responses while watching the films than they did before their mindfulness training. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).
Boosts to working memory
Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds. A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a nonmeditating military group and a group of nonmeditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the nonmeditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among nonmeditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect.
Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affected participants’ ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).
Less emotional reactivity
Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).
More cognitive flexibility
Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).
Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser el al., 2008) and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).
Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).
Using mindfulness to cope with negative emotions is a skill that can be learned through Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and requires a person to acknowledge their feelings and notice their thoughts about them. When sadness shows up, MBCT asks them to stay present with and explore the emotion rather than worry about it, distract themselves, try to make it go away, or deal with it in some other habitual, unhealthy way.
MBCT combines ideas from cognitive therapy with meditative and mindfulness practices but doesn’t require that you meditate or burn incense. It’s a mental health tool in which a person changes their relationship to their emotions, learns to regulate them, and harnesses their attention for self-care. When distressing emotions arise, a person anchors themselves in the present experience. In the present, the wave of negative feelings doesn’t knock them down or bring up a flood of bad memories.
Research showed that MBCT reduced depression relapse by 43%. It also enhanced people’s ability to feel reward and positive emotions. One aspect of depression for many individuals is the inability to feel positive emotions. MBCT physically alters brain patterns and gives a person coping skills to use as they move forward in life.
Don’t Let Depression Do The Thinking
Mindfulness allows people to access what’s been called “the present-moment pathway,” which involves and activates the brain’s insula and thalamus, among other parts. The thalamus is integral to sensory processing and plays a role in consciousness. You have a prune sized insula in each hemisphere of your brain. They are believed to be crucial to consciousness, feelings and emotions, and the regulation of the body’s homeostasis. Homeostasis is the process that maintains the stability of your internal environment in response to external changes.
Studies determined that as the present moment pathway was activated more through mindfulness, activity in the executive control network decreases. The executive control network is the part of the brain that recognizes negative emotions and thinks about it. As the executive control network activates, a person’s brain is going to see the upsetting emotion as a threat. Then, it’s going to try to solve and fix it, as it brings up sad memories and associations.
When confronting negative feelings, people trained in mindfulness learn to activate present moment pathways and limit rumination. When this happens, it reduces the feelings, increases their tolerance for emotional pain, and boosts empathy and self-compassion. They can then consciously choose a response rather than reacting in old ways that previously led to depression.
Mindfulness builds a person’s inner resources for working through and with upsetting emotions instead of sinking into depression. Also, it physically alters a person’s brain to reinforce and entrench mental strength. Mindfulness becomes less of a coping tool and becomes part of a happier, healthier way of life.
Please take the time to watch this TED talk by one of the founder’s of MBCT, Zindel Segal: