What is it about?

Mindfulness is increasingly found to promote physical and psychological well-being, but the psychological mechanisms through which this occurs are not well understood. One possibility is that mindfulness trainings, like the well-studied Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, increase the likelihood of a person finding positive meaning in response to emotionally ambiguous social cues. Emotionally ambiguous cues, like a surprised facial expression, are those that can signal both positive (surprise birthday party) and negative (car accident) outcomes. In response to these cues, some individuals tend to interpret these as negative, and others tend to see them as positive. These individual differences in response to emotional ambiguity are linked to internalizing disorders, where a stronger tendency toward negativity is associated with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety. We found evidence that MBSR results in a relatively long-lasting shift toward an increasingly positive bias that continues even weeks after the MBSR training ended. Further, we identified the ‘active ingredient’ in this training to be one’s ability to allow feelings to come and go (non-reactivity); individuals that adopted greater non-reactivity showed a more robust shift toward positivity.

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Why is it important?

It is becoming increasingly crucial to identify effective methods for mitigating the negative impacts of stress. This work shows that shifting responses to emotional ambiguity might be one path through which MBSR contributes to improved psychological well-being. Further, while there is a large amount of research showing beneficial effects of MBSR on self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, our study takes a unique approach by asking participants to provide responses to everyday social signals (facial expressions) rather than to reflect on symptoms. Thus, we provide a unique approach to characterize the effects of MBSR on psychological well-being.


We hope that this work highlights mindfulness as an effective behavioral strategy for coping with ongoing stressors – such as economic downturns and the COVID-19 pandemic – and that it spurs further research into the mechanisms underlying mindfulness trainings.

Maital Neta
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Mindfulness-based stress reduction triggers a long-term shift toward more positive appraisals of emotional ambiguity., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, January 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0001173.
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