Emotions desire to avoid pain and discomfort, physical

Emotions make people’s lives more
meaningful, colorful, and rich. They have the capacity to motivate and inspire,
making the day-today routine of human existence so much more vivid and
memorable than it would otherwise be (Lazarus, 1991). Conversely, it is also no
secret that emotions can sometimes become a burden, giving rise to profound
discomfort, or even anguish. It is at times like this, when the fundamental
human capacity to experience emotions feels less like a blessing and more like
a curse, that people often feel the overpowering urge to do something, anything
at all, to assuage the harrowing pangs of emotional pain. Of course, the desire
to avoid pain and discomfort, physical and emotional alike, is an instinct
inherent in most, if not all, humans (Higgins, 1998). However, when it comes to
dealing with unwanted emotions, there is a number of distinct strategies that
people often turn to in their efforts to preserve their internal well-being and
harmony. Paradoxically, even today relatively little is known about common
emotion regulation strategies, and learning to use them fluently and
effectively often remains a lifelong pursuit.

One common way of dealing with emotional
distress is, of course, to face the unpleasant emotions head-on and try to make
sense of both the painful experience and negative emotions associated with it. The
belief that self-insight is a necessary component of successful coping has been
prevalent in the literature since the early 20th century, which
makes the widespread use of this powerful, yet at times highly unpleasant
approach to coping with negative emotions not at all surprising (Pennebaker
& Graybeal, 2001). Indeed, a considerable body of research now suggests
that the choice of insight-seeking as an emotion regulation strategy is not
only popular, but also well-justified. Finding meaning in both external events
and personal emotions has been identified as an important factor in recovering
from trauma, coming to terms with loss, and minimizing overall negative affect
(Davis & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001; Kross & Ayduk, 2008; Wilson &
Gilbert, 2008).

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Another frequently used method for
reducing the impact of negative emotions is to turn one’s attention away from
agonizing feelings. Traditionally, avoidant emotion regulation strategies such
as suppression and denial were thought to be strictly maladaptive, but this
perspective began to change as more and more studies reporting positive effects
of avoidance began to appear in the late 20th century (Bonnano &
Burton, 2013). Much less time-consuming and often considerably more painless
than trying to uncover the root causes of disturbing emotions, avoidant emotion
regulation has been shown to be especially effective in short-term management
of pain-produced distress and depressive symptoms, as well as facilitating
temporary 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 and
avoidance – or, as it is broadly referred to nowadays, experiential avoidance –
have their merits. However, recent advances in affective science have led to the
revelation that excessive or inappropriate use of both experiential avoidance
and insight-seeking can lead to a wide range of adverse consequences (Bonanno
et al., 2004; Bonanno & Burton, 2013).

Over the years, experiential avoidance
has been implicated in a plethora of negative psychological and mental health
outcomes (Hayes et al., 1996). Although the term “experiential avoidance” was
coined less than 3 decades ago, the need to actively engage with one’s emotions
instead of running away from them has been emphasized in the literature for
more than a century (Hayes et al., 2004). Some of the major ramifications
associated with refusal to engage with one’s emotions have been shown to
include elevated anxiety, high levels of physiological arousal, diminished
positive affect, and deficits in long-term coping (Gross & Levenson, 1993;
Lazarus, 1998; Kashdan et al., 2006). In recent years, minimizing experiential
avoidance has become a central component of many treatment approaches,
including classical cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment
therapy, and a range of psychodynamic treatments (Hayes et al., 2004). Ongoing
research indicates that reductions in experiential avoidance can partially
account for post-treatment improvements in panic disorder, agoraphobia,
obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and borderline personality
disorder symptomatology, thus providing additional evidence for adverse effects
of inflexible, excessive use of avoidance-based emotion regulation strategies
(Hayes et al., 2004).

Despite the apparent risks associated
with avoiding negative emotions, memories, and thoughts, mounting evidence
suggests that becoming preoccupied with one’s emotions in hopes of escaping the
pitfalls of experiential avoidance is not the be-all and end-all of healthy
emotion regulation either. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that
sometimes being engrossed in one’s emotional experience can be equally as
damaging as avoiding and suppressing negative emotions, if in a somewhat
different ways (Roth & Cohen, 1986; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Ray et al.,
2008). Overzealous attempts to identify and analyze the causes of disturbing
feelings with the aim of eliminating the latter have been shown to result in
rumination, increased negative affect, and reduced problem-solving ability
(Nolen-Hoeksma, 1991; Carver et al., 1989), thus making increasingly plausible
the possibility that the ultimate goal of healthy emotion regulation lies in
achieving the balance between avoiding one’s emotions on the one hand and being
overly engaged with them on the other.

Although there is some agreement among
researchers and clinicians that both extremes of the emotional engagement
spectrum can play important roles in disorders that have traditionally been associated
with emotional dysregulation (Cribb et al., 2006; Rauch & Foe, 2006), no
studies to date have directly addressed the possibility that the balance between
over-engagement and avoidance is what makes for healthy emotion regulation. As
a result, there is still considerable uncertainty with regard to the nature of
such balance and ways of achieving it, as well as the extent to which the
degree and nature of engagement can affect emotion regulation.

One promising line of research that can
shed new light on the nature of emotional self-regulatory balance is the study
of mindfulness. The interest in mindfulness and its effects has grown
exponentially over the past four decades, with more recent findings suggesting
that incorporating mindfulness into everyday life is associated with an array
of positive outcomes ranging from improved mood and cognitive function to
significant 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 mindfulness
have been attributed to its effects on emotion regulation (Arch & Craske,
2006; Robins et al., 2012).

However, despite ever-growing evidence
indicating that there is likely an important connection between the experience
of mindfulness and the act of regulating one’s emotions, the underlying
mechanisms linking the two phenomena remain remarkably poorly understood
(Chamners et al., 2009). The main challenge of integrating the principles of
mindfulness with those of emotion regulation lies in the firm, age-old
conviction of modern psychology that emotions, positive and negative alike, are
inherently meaningful mental events that must be either acted upon or done away
with – an assumption that appears to be irreconcilable with the core principles
of the Buddhist tradition (Chambers et al., 2009). Despite the obvious arduousness
of the task, much work is being done to syncretize the contradictory tenets of
Buddhism and Western psychology.

Several promising perspectives on integrating
mindfulness and emotion regulation have emerged in recent years. For example, it
has been suggested that mindfulness facilitates emotion regulation by fostering
higher levels of metacognitive awareness, thus allowing one to simply notice
negative emotions as they come and go without feeling the need to react to them
(Teasdale et al., 2012). This view directly contradicts the previously
mentioned 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 that
take place in in people’s everyday lives as a result of mindfulness practice
that play the key role in enhancing emotion regulation. Arch and Craske, who suggested
that an increased ability to tolerate emotional discomfort is the nexus between
mindfulness and emotion regulation, were the first ones to allude to this
possibility (2006).

Additionally, the view that mindfulness
plays an important role in emotion regulation has  received support from endocrinological data.
In 2012, Brown, Weinstein, and Creswell showed that trait mindfulness modulates
not only affective, but also hormonal response to social stressors. In a carefully
designed experiment, they showed that trait mindfulness predicted lower
self-reported anxiety and negative affect, as well as lower cortisol response
to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Although specific neuroendocrine mechanisms
that tie mindfulness and dampened cortisol response are still unclear, Brown
and colleagues’ finding opens the door to a range of new possibilities for
solving the mystery of the relationship between emotion regulation and

Even though the explanations given above are
certainly plausible, they fail to address the question of how exactly mindfulness
affects emotional engagement to produce its remarkable regulatory results. A
perspective most compelling that paves the way for better understanding of the
relationship between mindfulness and emotional engagement was proposed back in
2004. Hayes and Feldman (2004) showed that mindfulness is associated with a
marked decrease in experiential avoidance, thought suppression, rumination,
worry, and overgeneralization of negative affect. Based on their findings, they
proposed a theoretical conceptualization of mindfulness as a state of balance
between experiential avoidance and over-engagement (Hayes & Feldman, 2004).

Indeed, the relationship between
avoidance and mindfulness has been relatively well-researched, and some have
even argued that the very definition of mindfulness and its primary components
– such as increased awareness, attention to the present moment, and a general
non-judgmental stance towards reality – all presuppose a certain level of
emotional engagement, thus pointing to a fundamental tension that exists
between the experience of mindfulness and that of avoidance (Bishop et al.,
2004). A similar tension existing between the state of being fully present in
the moment and that of being too preoccupied with one’s emotions has been discussed
at large (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Kumar et al., 2008; Semple et al., 2010). Numerous
studies have shown that mindfulness is associated with reductions rather than
increases in what are considered to be typical indicators of emotional
over-engagement, such as rumination and dysphoric mood (Hayes & Feldman,
2004; Broderick, 2005; Jain et al., 2007; Borders et al., 2010; Keune et al.,

Together, the findings outlined above do
once again point to the possibility that balance between experiential avoidance
and over-engagement can be achieved through mindfulness. However, the discordance
between mindfulness, avoidance, and over-engagement only partially substantiates
Hayes and Feldman’s novel idea. A critical issue that inevitably arises is that
defining mindfulness as the midpoint between extreme levels of experiential
avoidance and those of emotional engagement implies that mindfulness can simply
be measured in terms of the degree of emotional engagement. The inadequacy of
such a measure is obvious; after all, it is widely known that mindfulness
involves paying attention in a particular way, with a distinctive
non-judgmental attitude of openness and curiosity (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985),
which is why the complex phenomenon of mindfulness simply cannot be reduced to a
small number of variables used to measure emotional engagement. This raises an
important question: is it just the degree
of engagement that determines the effectiveness of mindfulness as an emotion
regulation tool, or is it the unique quality
of mindful engagement that makes it fundamentally different from other, less
adaptive forms of engagement? No one, to the best of our knowledge, has
addressed the question directly.

Needless to say, much additional research
is needed to adequately evaluate the roles that mindfulness and mindful
engagement play in emotion regulation, and gaining a better understanding of the
properties of mindfulness that could allow for such prominent regulatory
effects is certainly a priority. Coincidentally, the past 30 years of research
have witnessed a remarkable growth of interest in psychological distance – an
aspect of emotional engagement that might shed new light on mindful engagement
with negative emotions.

Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross were among
the first to comprehensively examine the effects of psychological distance from
emotionally-arousing memories and thoughts on outcomes of emotion regulation. In
their research, Ayduk and Kross found that people can analyze their feelings in
two radically different ways: from either a self-immersed or a self-distanced
perspective, and that adopting a self-distanced perspective is largely
associated with lower affective and cardiovascular reactivity than a
self-immersed perspective (Ayduk & Kross, 2008; Kross & Ayduk, 2008). The
authors described self-immersion as viewing oneself and re-experiencing
emotions from the first-person point of view (Kross & Ayduk, 2008).
Self-distancing on the other hand, was described as viewing oneself, as well as
one’s thoughts and feelings, from a third-person perspective (Kross &
Ayduk, 2008). The authors attributed the divergent effects of adopting different
types of perspectives to people’s tendency to recount the events when they
self-immerse and reconstrue those same events when they self-distance (Kross
& Ayduk, 2008).

Although psychological distancing in itself has been
relatively well-researched, the existing literature on the potential links
between mindfulness and self-distancing is scarce at best. Most of the relevant
studies 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 the
effects of specific mindfulness and meditation interventions on the general
tendency to spontaneously decenter, have all been addressed; however, due to
the limited number of studies that have investigated the question so far, it is
clear that no definitive conclusions can be drawn at this point.

In 2002 Teasdale et al showed that both
mindfulness skills and decentering are affected in mindfulness-based cognitive
therapy (MBCT), and it is likely that both play an important role in symptom
reduction 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 between
decentering and mindfulness is too big, and that extreme caution must be
exercised any time the decision is made to approach the two as independent
constructs (Carmody et al., 2009; Sauer & Baer, 2010).

Joseffson and colleagues (2014), on the
other hand, proposed that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) could reduce
depressive and anxiety symptoms and increase psychological wellbeing by directly
affecting the capacity to self-distance. They hypothesized that decentering is
the main underlying mechanism of mindfulness; however this hypothesis was only
partially confirmed (Joseffson et al., 2014). Even though Joseffson and
colleagues found that decentering was positively correlated with all five
facets of trait mindfulness (observing, non-reacting, non-judging, describing,
and acting with awareness), no differences in decentering were observed between
the 4-week MBI, relaxation, and wait-list groups. The authors speculated that
the design of the experiment could account for the lack of inter-group
differences in decentering (Joseffson et al., 2014).

Despite the controversy surrounding the
role of psychological distancing, or decentering, in mindfulness, the idea that
self-distancing can be one of the primary processes that facilitate emotion
regulation in mindful engagement seems increasingly plausible. For once,
engaging with one’s thoughts in a self-distanced manner has been shown to
result in increased adaptive thinking, constructive self-reflection, and
problem-solving (Ayduk & Kross, 2008; Kross & Ayduk, 2011; Fujita et
al., 2006). Consistent with a large body of research on short-term effects of
self-distancing, additional evidence suggests that adopting a self-distanced
perspective on emotionally-disturbing events also has some long-term positive effects
on both physical health and emotional wellbeing – effects very similar to those
of mindfulness (Kross & Ayduk, 2008; Chiesa & Serretti, 2009;
Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, studies have demonstrated
that self-distancing typically results in lower emotional and physiological
reactivity to unpleasant experiences and thoughts (Ayduk & Kross, 2008;
Kross & Ayduk, 2008). As is widely known, non-reactivity to inner
experience is one of the core attributes of mindfulness, and it has been shown
that the tendency to spontaneously increase the psychological distance is most
highly correlated (r=0.72) with the non-reactivity facet of mindfulness (Joseffson
et al., 2014).

Based on the evidence presented, it looks
like self-distancing is a likely candidate for the role of the
emotion-regulatory component of mindfulness – a component that has the
potential to make all the difference between mindful engagement and other forms
of emotional engagement. What makes it even more interesting, however, is the
fact that self-immersion – the opposite of self-distancing – has been shown to
give rise to rumination and worry, diminishing constructive problem-solving and
adaptive self-reflection (Ayduk & Kross, 2008). What’s particularly curious
about it is that the effects of adopting a self-immersed perspective have much
in common with the typical effects of emotional over-engagement (Nolen-Hoeksma,
1991; Carver et al., 1989), which brings us back to the discussion of the
respective roles of the level of emotional engagement and the form of such
engagement in achieving the ultimate emotion self-regulatory balance.

The one shortcoming of Hayes and
Feldman’s (2004) conceptualization of mindfulness as a state of balance between
experiential avoidance and over-engagement is that their model does not answer
the question of how can mindfulness
possibly offset the effects of the two radically different strategies for
dealing with unpleasant emotions. However, if self-distancing is in fact an
attribute of mindfulness responsible for its emotion-regulatory properties,
then it might also explain the mechanism responsible for regulating the levels
of avoidance and engagement. In this view, the balance is likely achieved
because adopting a distanced perspective reduces the emotional pain and
discomfort enough so that there is no urge to avoid engaging with unpleasant
emotions altogether, while at the same time preventing one from over-engaging
by simply not getting too “close” to the experience. Thus, the idea that
self-distancing is one of the essential mechanisms through which mindfulness operates
not only provides an alternative way of integrating the principles of
mindfulness with those of emotion regulation, but also offers an elegant
solution to the problem of reconciling the theory of emotion self-regulatory
balance with the complex phenomenon of mindfulness.

How can one master the art of emotion
regulation? This question has been mystifying psychologists and laymen alike
for centuries. In one of the most recent developments, moving away from the
belief that some emotion regulation strategies are inherently better than
others has led to the development of the idea that well-balanced use of
different emotion-regulation strategies may hold the answer to the age-long
dilemma. However, to this day, ways of achieving such balance remain a mystery
– a mystery that a comprehensive study of self-distancing as a mechanism of
mindful emotion regulation can bring us one step closer to solving.  

The Present Study

The present study seeks to further our
collective understanding of the factors that make for healthy emotion
regulation by investigating the concept of mindfulness as a state of balance
between experiential avoidance and over-engagement and the role of
self-distancing in such engagement.

The first goal of our study is to assess different
forms of emotional engagement and their affective manifestations. In order to
do so, we asked our participants to describe, in writing, a low point in their
lives. We expect that the narratives of all participants can be divided into
two major categories: avoidant and engaged. Engagement and avoidance will be
measured primarily through verbal immediacy – a classical measure of emotional
engagement that was first introduced by Wiener and Mehrabian in 1968 and
further refined throughout the 20th century (Pennebaker & King,
1999). Based on previously published data, we expect that avoidant narratives
will be characterized by low verbal immediacy, whereas engaged narratives will be
associated with higher levels of verbal immediacy (Pennebaker & Lay, 2002;
Cohn et al., 2004). In addition, we expect avoidant participants to score
higher than emotionally engaged participants on self-reports of both experiential
avoidance and anxiety (Hayes & Feldman, 2004).

It is our belief that engaged narratives
can be further sub-divided into self-distanced and self-immersed categories. Self-distancing
and self-immersion will be measured by the relative frequency of use of certain
linguistic markers, as well as self-reports of psychological distancing and
immersion, all of which were used in earlier studies of distancing (Kross &
Ayduk, 2008; Kross et al., 2011; Park et al., 2016). In accordance with the
evidence for emotion-regulatory effects of adopting a self-distanced
perspective, as well as for similar affective outcomes of over-engagement and
self-immersion, we expect self-distancing subjects to report lower levels of
sadness relative to those of self-immersing individuals (Kross & Ayduk,

Together, the three categories outlined
above will represent experiential avoidance (low verbal immediacy, high
anxiety, high self-reported avoidance); over-engagement (high verbal immediacy,
high self-immersion, high sadness); and regulatory balance (high verbal
immediacy, high self-distancing, low sadness).

The second goal of our study is to test
the idea that individual tendency to self-distance is an attribute of
mindfulness. We hypothesize that higher trait-mindfulness predicts engagement
with, rather than avoidance of, emotionally arousing memories. It is likely
that such engagement is of highly self-distanced rather than self-immersed
nature. Thus, when writing about a low point in their lives, participants
higher in trait mindfulness would be more likely to adopt a self-distanced
perspective on their memories. If confirmed, the hypothesis that higher
trait-mindfulness promotes self-distanced engagement with emotionally-arousing
material would lend support to the model of mindfulness as a state of balance
between experiential avoidance and emotional over-engagement.