Meditation lowers impact of unpleasant feelings

Mounting credit card bills, snowy commutes, crowded stores — the holiday season can often bring tidings of stress and frustration. But a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto has found that mindfulness meditation helps people brush off unpleasant feelings and stay focused on the task at hand.

Professor Philip Zelazo in the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, along with Dr. Catherine Ortner from the University of Toronto and meditation instructor Sachne Kilner, found that people with more mindfulness meditation experience had shorter and less intense reactions to emotional images than those with less experience in the practice. Mindfulness meditation practitioners proved particularly unflappable when viewing unpleasant emotional images, reporting higher levels of well-being and less interference with cognitive tasks than both relaxed meditation practitioners and those who didn’t meditate at all.

Mindfulness meditation, which typically involves exercises such as sitting meditation and walking meditation, is designed to encourage intentional awareness of one’s thoughts and actions. Mindfulness, one of the central tenets of Buddhism, is believed to encourage self-control and enlightenment.

The study involved 28 subjects who were randomly assigned to mindfulness meditation training, relaxation training or to a control group. Both the relaxation and mindfulness meditation groups showed decreased stress in response to emotionally-loaded photographs, but only the mindfulness meditation participants showed a decrease in emotional interference.

Zelazo and his colleagues use a real-world example to explain the value of their work. “An accident witnessed while driving may capture one’s attention, and continuing to observe the scene may put one (and others) at risk,” he said. “A mindful response — maintaining attention to the task at hand and disengaging from a negative stimulus — may permit more effective cognitive function.”

The study will be published in the December 2007 issue of Motivation and Emotion.

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