Can mindfulness make me less emotionally reactive?

Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing emotional impulsivity. However, the mechanism underlying this observation is not well understood. It has been suggested that mindfulness reduces “knee-jerk”  emotional responses through three related processes: it allows people to engage with an emotion more by paying closer attention to it, it encourages awareness of the external aspects of an emotional stimulus encouraging weakening of our reactive emotional response  and through this, emotional stimuli  are remembered in a more neutral way moving forward. In this way, mindfulness allows for more consciousness during an emotional response, lessening automaticity. 

In a study by Ussberg et al., 37 novice meditators were randomized to view negative and neutral images accompanied by a mindfulness exercise or to one of two control conditions. In the control conditions, participants were either engaged in a distracting arithmetic task or asked to focus on the images without attending to their inner experiences. This was intended to compare mindful engagement with emotions with conditions modelling emotional disengagement and unaware emotional engagement. The group used electrical brain waves (Late Positive Potential) measured by ECG to observe ongoing emotional responses to images and interpreted the amplitude of brain waves as the intensity of the emotional response.  

The study showed that the mindfulness group were more emotionally responsive to images on first exposure, supporting the notion that mindfulness increases engagement with an emotional experience.  Upon subsequent exposure to negative images, the emotional response in the mindfulness condition was reduced considerably more than in the control groups. Additionally, the observed reduction of emotional reactivity was sustained in the mindfulness group. Interestingly, participants in the mindfulness group showed attenuated emotional responses less than 500 milliseconds after exposure to an image showing that mindfulness may influence a component of the emotional response not under conscious control. 

So, can mindfulness make you less emotionally reactive? Possibly! This study supports the hypothesis that mindfulness can persistently decrease emotional reactivity to repetitive emotional stimuli. While the study was limited by the small sample size and few emotional categories, it has demonstrated that objective measures can be used to measured the effects of mindfulness. 

Why is this useful as medical students? Medical trainees and physicians bear witness to the tragedy of others on a constant basis, and are often operating in high pressure environments. Perhaps mindfulness could help us respond more skillfully in these situations. 

Uusberg H, Uusberg A, Talpsep T, Paaver M. Mechanisms of mindfulness: The dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring. Biological psychology. 2016 Jul 1;118:94-106.[Link to abstract]

This article was written by Zoe O’Neill, a medical student at McGill University and member of the McGill Med Mindfulness team.

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