There is mounting evidence that mindfulness-based interventions can positively affect psychological well-being. But for some, the time and cost involved in mindfulness training can be a barrier. A new study finds that just one week of meditation may be enough to loosen the grip of negative emotions.
In the study, researchers in China assigned 46 college student volunteers to either a brief mindfulness meditation group intervention, or an emotion regulation education group.
The meditation intervention, which was offered to 22 students, was based on core concepts of mindfulness and Vipassana breath meditation, combined with “knowledge gained from [the authors’] practical experience and from scientific reports on meditation.” The training involved a 30-minute lecture on theory of mindfulness meditation, followed by seven days of 15-minute audio-guided group meditation sessions. Students were instructed to close their eyes, relax, and focus on their breath. When thoughts came up, the students were to notice and acknowledge them, then “simply let them go by bringing attention back to the breath.”
The emotion-regulation education group also attended a 30-minute lecture on day one, which provided instruction on how to recognize and regulate their emotions. They were then asked to practice on their own for fifteen minutes per day for the next seven days.
Improved emotion management—in one week?
Before and after training, members of each group filled out questionnaires about their symptoms of depression and anxiety, and completed a number of computerized tasks to evaluate their emotion-processing skills.
Emotion processing was broken into three categories (intensity, memory, and attention bias). During the emotional-intensity task, students looked at 66 positive, negative, and neutral images one by one. After viewing each picture, they were asked to rate the strength of their emotional responses to it. In the emotional-memory task, students were presented with some of those same images, along with some new ones, and asked to recall which images they’d viewed previously.
In the attention bias task, participants were repeatedly presented with images of two faces. Each pair of faces contained either a happy, sad, or neutral person paired with another neutral face. Positioning of the neutral face varied from left to right. Face pairs were presented one at a time on the screen, then removed. Once the pictures disappeared, a dot appeared on either the left or right half of the screen, and students were asked to indicate which side the dot was on by pressing a key on a keyboard. Researchers assessed their accuracy and reaction time.
Meditators Were Better at Emotion Processing
After training, depression and anxiety scores didn’t change significantly for either group. This suggests that neither one week of brief meditation nor one week of emotion regulation practice are sufficient to meaningfully alter a person’s symptoms.
Where researchers did find improvement was in the meditators’ emotional processing. Specifically, people in the meditation group had better emotional memory and were less likely to pay attention to negative emotion after a week of group practice. They also reported experiencing less positive and negative emotional intensity than the control group.
This study adds to what has, so far, been a mixed bag of evidence about the effects of a brief intervention on changes in mood. For example, in one study, researchers found that meditation was linked to greater peace of mind, but in another, no tie between meditation and increased positive emotion was found. More research will be needed to see whether brief interventions can reliably boost mood.
The silver lining is that a less time-intensive and costly form of group meditation training may be enough to help people to be less impacted by their negative emotions.