Emotions make people’s lives moremeaningful, colorful, and rich. They have the capacity to motivate and inspire,making the day-today routine of human existence so much more vivid andmemorable than it would otherwise be (Lazarus, 1991). Conversely, it is also nosecret that emotions can sometimes become a burden, giving rise to profounddiscomfort, or even anguish. It is at times like this, when the fundamentalhuman capacity to experience emotions feels less like a blessing and more likea curse, that people often feel the overpowering urge to do something, anythingat all, to assuage the harrowing pangs of emotional pain. Of course, the desireto avoid pain and discomfort, physical and emotional alike, is an instinctinherent in most, if not all, humans (Higgins, 1998).
However, when it comes todealing with unwanted emotions, there is a number of distinct strategies thatpeople often turn to in their efforts to preserve their internal well-being andharmony. Paradoxically, even today relatively little is known about commonemotion regulation strategies, and learning to use them fluently andeffectively often remains a lifelong pursuit. One common way of dealing with emotionaldistress is, of course, to face the unpleasant emotions head-on and try to makesense of both the painful experience and negative emotions associated with it. Thebelief that self-insight is a necessary component of successful coping has beenprevalent in the literature since the early 20th century, whichmakes the widespread use of this powerful, yet at times highly unpleasantapproach to coping with negative emotions not at all surprising (Pennebaker& Graybeal, 2001). Indeed, a considerable body of research now suggeststhat the choice of insight-seeking as an emotion regulation strategy is notonly popular, but also well-justified.
Finding meaning in both external eventsand personal emotions has been identified as an important factor in recoveringfrom trauma, coming to terms with loss, and minimizing overall negative affect(Davis & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001; Kross & Ayduk, 2008; Wilson , 2008). Another frequently used method forreducing the impact of negative emotions is to turn one’s attention away fromagonizing feelings. Traditionally, avoidant emotion regulation strategies suchas suppression and denial were thought to be strictly maladaptive, but thisperspective began to change as more and more studies reporting positive effectsof avoidance began to appear in the late 20th century (Bonnano &Burton, 2013). Much less time-consuming and often considerably more painlessthan trying to uncover the root causes of disturbing emotions, avoidant emotionregulation has been shown to be especially effective in short-term managementof pain-produced distress and depressive symptoms, as well as facilitatingtemporary reductions in negative cognitions and affect (McCaul & Malott,1984; Fennell & Teasdale, 1984; Lazarus, 1998; Nolen-Hoeksema et al.
, 2008;McRae, 2010).Naturally, both insight-seeking andavoidance – or, as it is broadly referred to nowadays, experiential avoidance –have their merits. However, recent advances in affective science have led to therevelation that excessive or inappropriate use of both experiential avoidanceand insight-seeking can lead to a wide range of adverse consequences (Bonannoet al., 2004; Bonanno & Burton, 2013). Over the years, experiential avoidancehas been implicated in a plethora of negative psychological and mental healthoutcomes (Hayes et al.
, 1996). Although the term “experiential avoidance” wascoined less than 3 decades ago, the need to actively engage with one’s emotionsinstead of running away from them has been emphasized in the literature formore than a century (Hayes et al., 2004). Some of the major ramificationsassociated with refusal to engage with one’s emotions have been shown toinclude elevated anxiety, high levels of physiological arousal, diminishedpositive affect, and deficits in long-term coping (Gross & Levenson, 1993;Lazarus, 1998; Kashdan et al., 2006). In recent years, minimizing experientialavoidance has become a central component of many treatment approaches,including classical cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitmenttherapy, and a range of psychodynamic treatments (Hayes et al.
, 2004). Ongoingresearch indicates that reductions in experiential avoidance can partiallyaccount for post-treatment improvements in panic disorder, agoraphobia,obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and borderline personalitydisorder symptomatology, thus providing additional evidence for adverse effectsof inflexible, excessive use of avoidance-based emotion regulation strategies(Hayes et al., 2004).Despite the apparent risks associatedwith avoiding negative emotions, memories, and thoughts, mounting evidencesuggests that becoming preoccupied with one’s emotions in hopes of escaping thepitfalls of experiential avoidance is not the be-all and end-all of healthyemotion regulation either.
In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated thatsometimes being engrossed in one’s emotional experience can be equally asdamaging as avoiding and suppressing negative emotions, if in a somewhatdifferent ways (Roth & Cohen, 1986; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Ray et al.,2008). Overzealous attempts to identify and analyze the causes of disturbingfeelings with the aim of eliminating the latter have been shown to result inrumination, increased negative affect, and reduced problem-solving ability(Nolen-Hoeksma, 1991; Carver et al.
, 1989), thus making increasingly plausiblethe possibility that the ultimate goal of healthy emotion regulation lies inachieving the balance between avoiding one’s emotions on the one hand and beingoverly engaged with them on the other. Although there is some agreement amongresearchers and clinicians that both extremes of the emotional engagementspectrum can play important roles in disorders that have traditionally been associatedwith emotional dysregulation (Cribb et al., 2006; Rauch & Foe, 2006), nostudies to date have directly addressed the possibility that the balance betweenover-engagement and avoidance is what makes for healthy emotion regulation. Asa result, there is still considerable uncertainty with regard to the nature ofsuch balance and ways of achieving it, as well as the extent to which thedegree and nature of engagement can affect emotion regulation.One promising line of research that canshed new light on the nature of emotional self-regulatory balance is the studyof mindfulness. The interest in mindfulness and its effects has grownexponentially over the past four decades, with more recent findings suggestingthat incorporating mindfulness into everyday life is associated with an arrayof positive outcomes ranging from improved mood and cognitive function tosignificant reductions in daily stress levels and chronic pain (Jain et al.,2007; Mrazek et al.
, 2014; Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Kabat-Zinn et al.,1985). Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these positive outcomes of mindfulnesshave been attributed to its effects on emotion regulation (Arch & Craske,2006; Robins et al., 2012).However, despite ever-growing evidenceindicating that there is likely an important connection between the experienceof mindfulness and the act of regulating one’s emotions, the underlyingmechanisms linking the two phenomena remain remarkably poorly understood(Chamners et al., 2009). The main challenge of integrating the principles ofmindfulness with those of emotion regulation lies in the firm, age-oldconviction of modern psychology that emotions, positive and negative alike, areinherently meaningful mental events that must be either acted upon or done awaywith – an assumption that appears to be irreconcilable with the core principlesof the Buddhist tradition (Chambers et al.
, 2009). Despite the obvious arduousnessof the task, much work is being done to syncretize the contradictory tenets ofBuddhism and Western psychology.Several promising perspectives on integratingmindfulness and emotion regulation have emerged in recent years. For example, ithas been suggested that mindfulness facilitates emotion regulation by fosteringhigher levels of metacognitive awareness, thus allowing one to simply noticenegative emotions as they come and go without feeling the need to react to them(Teasdale et al.
, 2012). This view directly contradicts the previouslymentioned notion of the inherent meaningfulness and significance of emotions. Another, perhaps less radical argument,holds that it is not mindfulness itself, but rather a series of changes thattake place in in people’s everyday lives as a result of mindfulness practicethat play the key role in enhancing emotion regulation. Arch and Craske, who suggestedthat an increased ability to tolerate emotional discomfort is the nexus betweenmindfulness and emotion regulation, were the first ones to allude to thispossibility (2006). Additionally, the view that mindfulnessplays an important role in emotion regulation has received support from endocrinological data.In 2012, Brown, Weinstein, and Creswell showed that trait mindfulness modulatesnot only affective, but also hormonal response to social stressors.
In a carefullydesigned experiment, they showed that trait mindfulness predicted lowerself-reported anxiety and negative affect, as well as lower cortisol responseto the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Although specific neuroendocrine mechanismsthat tie mindfulness and dampened cortisol response are still unclear, Brownand colleagues’ finding opens the door to a range of new possibilities forsolving the mystery of the relationship between emotion regulation andmindfulness. Even though the explanations given above arecertainly plausible, they fail to address the question of how exactly mindfulnessaffects emotional engagement to produce its remarkable regulatory results. Aperspective most compelling that paves the way for better understanding of therelationship between mindfulness and emotional engagement was proposed back in2004. Hayes and Feldman (2004) showed that mindfulness is associated with amarked decrease in experiential avoidance, thought suppression, rumination,worry, and overgeneralization of negative affect.
Based on their findings, theyproposed a theoretical conceptualization of mindfulness as a state of balancebetween experiential avoidance and over-engagement (Hayes & Feldman, 2004).Indeed, the relationship betweenavoidance and mindfulness has been relatively well-researched, and some haveeven argued that the very definition of mindfulness and its primary components– such as increased awareness, attention to the present moment, and a generalnon-judgmental stance towards reality – all presuppose a certain level ofemotional engagement, thus pointing to a fundamental tension that existsbetween the experience of mindfulness and that of avoidance (Bishop et al.,2004).
A similar tension existing between the state of being fully present inthe moment and that of being too preoccupied with one’s emotions has been discussedat large (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Kumar et al., 2008; Semple et al., 2010). Numerousstudies have shown that mindfulness is associated with reductions rather thanincreases in what are considered to be typical indicators of emotionalover-engagement, such as rumination and dysphoric mood (Hayes & Feldman,2004; Broderick, 2005; Jain et al., 2007; Borders et al., 2010; Keune et al.,2012). Together, the findings outlined above doonce again point to the possibility that balance between experiential avoidanceand over-engagement can be achieved through mindfulness.
However, the discordancebetween mindfulness, avoidance, and over-engagement only partially substantiatesHayes and Feldman’s novel idea. A critical issue that inevitably arises is thatdefining mindfulness as the midpoint between extreme levels of experientialavoidance and those of emotional engagement implies that mindfulness can simplybe measured in terms of the degree of emotional engagement. The inadequacy ofsuch a measure is obvious; after all, it is widely known that mindfulnessinvolves paying attention in a particular way, with a distinctivenon-judgmental attitude of openness and curiosity (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985),which is why the complex phenomenon of mindfulness simply cannot be reduced to asmall number of variables used to measure emotional engagement.
This raises animportant question: is it just the degreeof engagement that determines the effectiveness of mindfulness as an emotionregulation tool, or is it the unique qualityof mindful engagement that makes it fundamentally different from other, lessadaptive forms of engagement? No one, to the best of our knowledge, hasaddressed the question directly. Needless to say, much additional researchis needed to adequately evaluate the roles that mindfulness and mindfulengagement play in emotion regulation, and gaining a better understanding of theproperties of mindfulness that could allow for such prominent regulatoryeffects is certainly a priority. Coincidentally, the past 30 years of researchhave witnessed a remarkable growth of interest in psychological distance – anaspect of emotional engagement that might shed new light on mindful engagementwith negative emotions. Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross were amongthe first to comprehensively examine the effects of psychological distance fromemotionally-arousing memories and thoughts on outcomes of emotion regulation.
Intheir research, Ayduk and Kross found that people can analyze their feelings intwo radically different ways: from either a self-immersed or a self-distancedperspective, and that adopting a self-distanced perspective is largelyassociated with lower affective and cardiovascular reactivity than aself-immersed perspective (Ayduk & Kross, 2008; Kross & Ayduk, 2008). Theauthors described self-immersion as viewing oneself and re-experiencingemotions from the first-person point of view (Kross & Ayduk, 2008).Self-distancing on the other hand, was described as viewing oneself, as well asone’s thoughts and feelings, from a third-person perspective (Kross , 2008). The authors attributed the divergent effects of adopting differenttypes of perspectives to people’s tendency to recount the events when theyself-immerse and reconstrue those same events when they self-distance (Kross& Ayduk, 2008). Although psychological distancing in itself has beenrelatively well-researched, the existing literature on the potential linksbetween mindfulness and self-distancing is scarce at best. Most of the relevantstudies have focused on the relationship between mindfulness and decentering –a concept similar to that of psychological self-distancing (Fresco et al.,2007).
Associations between decentering and psychological wellbeing,rumination, and symptom reduction in anxiety and depression, as well as theeffects of specific mindfulness and meditation interventions on the generaltendency to spontaneously decenter, have all been addressed; however, due tothe limited number of studies that have investigated the question so far, it isclear that no definitive conclusions can be drawn at this point. In 2002 Teasdale et al showed that bothmindfulness skills and decentering are affected in mindfulness-based cognitivetherapy (MBCT), and it is likely that both play an important role in symptomreduction and relapse prevention in depressed patients (Teasdale et al., 2002).However, important concerns have been raised in response to those findings.Indeed, some critics went as far as claiming that the degree of overlap betweendecentering and mindfulness is too big, and that extreme caution must beexercised any time the decision is made to approach the two as independentconstructs (Carmody et al., 2009; Sauer & Baer, 2010).
Joseffson and colleagues (2014), on theother hand, proposed that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) could reducedepressive and anxiety symptoms and increase psychological wellbeing by directlyaffecting the capacity to self-distance. They hypothesized that decentering isthe main underlying mechanism of mindfulness; however this hypothesis was onlypartially confirmed (Joseffson et al., 2014). Even though Joseffson andcolleagues found that decentering was positively correlated with all fivefacets of trait mindfulness (observing, non-reacting, non-judging, describing,and acting with awareness), no differences in decentering were observed betweenthe 4-week MBI, relaxation, and wait-list groups.
The authors speculated thatthe design of the experiment could account for the lack of inter-groupdifferences in decentering (Joseffson et al., 2014). Despite the controversy surrounding therole of psychological distancing, or decentering, in mindfulness, the idea thatself-distancing can be one of the primary processes that facilitate emotionregulation in mindful engagement seems increasingly plausible. For once,engaging with one’s thoughts in a self-distanced manner has been shown toresult in increased adaptive thinking, constructive self-reflection, andproblem-solving (Ayduk & Kross, 2008; Kross & Ayduk, 2011; Fujita etal.
, 2006). Consistent with a large body of research on short-term effects ofself-distancing, additional evidence suggests that adopting a self-distancedperspective on emotionally-disturbing events also has some long-term positive effectson both physical health and emotional wellbeing – effects very similar to thoseof mindfulness (Kross & Ayduk, 2008; Chiesa & Serretti, 2009;Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, studies have demonstratedthat self-distancing typically results in lower emotional and physiologicalreactivity to unpleasant experiences and thoughts (Ayduk & Kross, 2008;Kross & Ayduk, 2008). As is widely known, non-reactivity to innerexperience is one of the core attributes of mindfulness, and it has been shownthat the tendency to spontaneously increase the psychological distance is mosthighly correlated (r=0.72) with the non-reactivity facet of mindfulness (Joseffsonet al., 2014). Based on the evidence presented, it lookslike self-distancing is a likely candidate for the role of theemotion-regulatory component of mindfulness – a component that has thepotential to make all the difference between mindful engagement and other formsof emotional engagement.
What makes it even more interesting, however, is thefact that self-immersion – the opposite of self-distancing – has been shown togive rise to rumination and worry, diminishing constructive problem-solving andadaptive self-reflection (Ayduk & Kross, 2008). What’s particularly curiousabout it is that the effects of adopting a self-immersed perspective have muchin common with the typical effects of emotional over-engagement (Nolen-Hoeksma,1991; Carver et al., 1989), which brings us back to the discussion of therespective roles of the level of emotional engagement and the form of suchengagement in achieving the ultimate emotion self-regulatory balance. The one shortcoming of Hayes andFeldman’s (2004) conceptualization of mindfulness as a state of balance betweenexperiential avoidance and over-engagement is that their model does not answerthe question of how can mindfulnesspossibly offset the effects of the two radically different strategies fordealing with unpleasant emotions. However, if self-distancing is in fact anattribute of mindfulness responsible for its emotion-regulatory properties,then it might also explain the mechanism responsible for regulating the levelsof avoidance and engagement.
In this view, the balance is likely achievedbecause adopting a distanced perspective reduces the emotional pain anddiscomfort enough so that there is no urge to avoid engaging with unpleasantemotions altogether, while at the same time preventing one from over-engagingby simply not getting too “close” to the experience. Thus, the idea thatself-distancing is one of the essential mechanisms through which mindfulness operatesnot only provides an alternative way of integrating the principles ofmindfulness with those of emotion regulation, but also offers an elegantsolution to the problem of reconciling the theory of emotion self-regulatorybalance with the complex phenomenon of mindfulness. How can one master the art of emotionregulation? This question has been mystifying psychologists and laymen alikefor centuries. In one of the most recent developments, moving away from thebelief that some emotion regulation strategies are inherently better thanothers has led to the development of the idea that well-balanced use ofdifferent emotion-regulation strategies may hold the answer to the age-longdilemma. However, to this day, ways of achieving such balance remain a mystery– a mystery that a comprehensive study of self-distancing as a mechanism ofmindful emotion regulation can bring us one step closer to solving. The Present StudyThe present study seeks to further ourcollective understanding of the factors that make for healthy emotionregulation by investigating the concept of mindfulness as a state of balancebetween experiential avoidance and over-engagement and the role ofself-distancing in such engagement. The first goal of our study is to assess differentforms of emotional engagement and their affective manifestations.
In order todo so, we asked our participants to describe, in writing, a low point in theirlives. We expect that the narratives of all participants can be divided intotwo major categories: avoidant and engaged. Engagement and avoidance will bemeasured primarily through verbal immediacy – a classical measure of emotionalengagement that was first introduced by Wiener and Mehrabian in 1968 andfurther refined throughout the 20th century (Pennebaker & King,1999). Based on previously published data, we expect that avoidant narrativeswill be characterized by low verbal immediacy, whereas engaged narratives will beassociated with higher levels of verbal immediacy (Pennebaker & Lay, 2002;Cohn et al., 2004). In addition, we expect avoidant participants to scorehigher than emotionally engaged participants on self-reports of both experientialavoidance and anxiety (Hayes & Feldman, 2004). It is our belief that engaged narrativescan be further sub-divided into self-distanced and self-immersed categories. Self-distancingand self-immersion will be measured by the relative frequency of use of certainlinguistic markers, as well as self-reports of psychological distancing andimmersion, all of which were used in earlier studies of distancing (Kross , 2008; Kross et al.
, 2011; Park et al., 2016). In accordance with theevidence for emotion-regulatory effects of adopting a self-distancedperspective, as well as for similar affective outcomes of over-engagement andself-immersion, we expect self-distancing subjects to report lower levels ofsadness relative to those of self-immersing individuals (Kross & Ayduk,2008). Together, the three categories outlinedabove will represent experiential avoidance (low verbal immediacy, highanxiety, high self-reported avoidance); over-engagement (high verbal immediacy,high self-immersion, high sadness); and regulatory balance (high verbalimmediacy, high self-distancing, low sadness).The second goal of our study is to testthe idea that individual tendency to self-distance is an attribute ofmindfulness.
We hypothesize that higher trait-mindfulness predicts engagementwith, rather than avoidance of, emotionally arousing memories. It is likelythat such engagement is of highly self-distanced rather than self-immersednature. Thus, when writing about a low point in their lives, participantshigher in trait mindfulness would be more likely to adopt a self-distancedperspective on their memories. If confirmed, the hypothesis that highertrait-mindfulness promotes self-distanced engagement with emotionally-arousingmaterial would lend support to the model of mindfulness as a state of balancebetween experiential avoidance and emotional over-engagement.