Meditation is definitely having a moment right now. Research shows it can provide many health benefits, including stress reduction and an improvement in your mood. Part of the draw may be that it doesn’t require a major time commitment to get some of those results. In fact, according to researchers at Yale, Columbia, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Dartmouth, one short course in mindfulness training can help you learn how to deal with pain and negative emotions better.
The researchers had study participants, who’d never meditated before, take a 30-minute lesson on mindful acceptance. The participants learned what the concept was (the awareness and acceptance of a situation without judgment) and how it works (say, after falling short of a race PR, you’d acknowledge and accept that you’re disappointed with yourself without letting the disappointment make you feel guilty, angry, or weak). They were also given metaphors about being a bus driver or sitting through a storm (we’ll walk you through these toward the end) to help them learn how to apply this approach to real-life situations.
“Mindful acceptance can alter your appraisal by giving you a sense of being removed from an experience, like you’re merely observing what’s happening and not actually participating in it.”
Kevin N. Ochsner, PhD, Professor and Chair in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University
Immediately afterward, the participants were instructed to react naturally to seeing neutral and negative images and feeling warm and painfully hot temperatures. Then they were told to react to each with mindful acceptance. When participants accepted a negative image or painful heat, they experienced less negative emotion and physical pain than they did when they reacted naturally to them.
One reason for this, according to study co-author Kevin N. Ochsner, PhD, a professor and chair in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, is that mindful acceptance changes how you interpret what something means to you. Another name for that interpretation is “appraisal,” and it drives all your emotions. “Mindful acceptance can alter your appraisal by giving you a sense of being removed from an experience, like you’re merely observing what’s happening and not actually participating in it,” he says. For example, say your goal was to complete 10 push-ups and you had to drop to your knees at nine. Your appraisal could either make you fixate on being one off and thus feel frustrated, or it could help you acknowledge that you came closer than you’ve ever been and motivate you to try harder next time.
“People have a tendency to let their feelings build on each other and snowball. You feel anxious and afraid, then you feel angry that you’re anxious and afraid, then you’re sad that you’re angry, and so on. But if you can mindfully accept the initial reaction as the way you really feel, then it will simply flow through you, you won’t amplify things, and your emotional response won’t be nearly as intense or long-lasting,” says Ochsner. In other words, it allows you to just let it go, something to bear in mind next time things don’t go the way you had hoped.
Eager to increase your mindful acceptance ASAP? Try this brief intro to meditation, based on exercises from Ochsner’s study.
Sit comfortably in a quiet room without any distractions. Spend two to five minutes focusing on your breath. Then, imagine you’re driving a bus. Passengers get on and off, but the bus just keeps on moving. Some passengers are loud and obnoxious. Think of them as unquiet thoughts or unpleasant emotions. Acknowledge that they’ll have a presence and accept that they’ll be there momentarily without reacting to them. When they get off the bus, keep driving.
Another approach: Imagine you’re outside and a storm is coming. But the ground, the trees, the buildings, and you are all still there, whether it’s raining, snowing, or sunny. Instead of running away, accept that the storm is there. Then, let it pass.
When the time comes, put this newly learned concept of mindful acceptance to practice: If you feel a big emotion brewing, rather than judge whether it’s “good” or “bad,” channel your inner bus driver or storm watcher and try to attend to what you feel, then drop it off or let it pass.
The great thing about this exercise is that you can see improvements after a single short session. But the more you practice mindful acceptance, the easier and more natural it will become, says Ochsner. “If you can set aside a few minutes a day when you just focus on your breath, sit patiently with your feelings, and observe what’s going on in your mind and your body, that’s the first step toward improving your ability to accept—and change—things in your life.”