Does “Mindful Acceptance” Reduce Pain and Negative Emotions?

The technique can soften responses to negative experiences, a fMRI study finds.

Posted Feb 20, 2020

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me. Shine until tomorrow. Let it be. And when the broken-hearted people, living in the world agree... There will be an answer. Let it be.

—John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "Let It Be

Individuals with minimal mindfulness meditation experience can quickly learn how to moderate their brains' responses to painful experiences and negative images using a technique called mindful acceptance, according to a new study (Kober et al., 2020) by researchers at Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale.

The aptly titled study, "Let It Be: Mindful-Acceptance Down-Regulates Pain and Negative Emotion," was published on January 27 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

KieferPix/Shutterstock
Source: KieferPix/Shutterstock

"The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well—even without long meditation practice," first author Hedy Kober, who is an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University, said in a news release.

The ability to accept a less-than-perfect situation without judgment is a hallmark of mindfulness. Previous research has shown that consistent mindfulness training or sticking with a regular meditation practice can yield positive mental health outcomes.

What Is Mindful Acceptance?

Mindful acceptance is a specific mindfulness technique that focuses on emotion regulation and learning to respond to emotional or physical stimuli with both non-judgment and acceptance.

For this study, Kober and colleagues designed an experiment to investigate if a brief 20-minute introductory "crash course" on mindful acceptance could help meditation-naïve participants (with no formal training in mindfulness or meditation) improve their capacity to down-regulate physical pain and negative emotions.

At the outset of this study, participants spent 20 minutes learning a simple mindful acceptance strategy for emotion regulation. Then, each participant was exposed to two different types of stimuli (e.g., negative vs. neutral images and painful vs. warm temperatures applied to forearm) while having his or her brain scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers found that when participants were prompted to employ mindful acceptance just before seeing a negative image or experiencing a painfully hot, burning sensation, their brains processed the negative stimuli and physical pain differently. "It's as if the brain was responding to warm temperature, not very high heat," Kober said.

In their paper, the authors provide a detailed explanation of the brain mechanisms behind mindful acceptance and the down-regulation of pain and negative emotion they observed:

"Emotion regulation using mindful-acceptance was associated with reductions in reported pain and negative affect, reduced amygdala responses to negative images, and reduced heat-evoked responses in medial and lateral pain systems. Critically, mindful-acceptance significantly reduced activity in a distributed, a-priori neurologic signature that is sensitive and specific to experimentally-induced pain. In addition, these changes occurred in the absence of detectable increases in prefrontal control systems."

Based on these findings, Kober et al. conclude that employing a mindful acceptance strategy can change the brain's initial appraisal of and subsequent response to emotionally negative or physically painful stimuli.

The latest research on the benefits of learning to "let it be" using mindful acceptance could lead to new strategies for shifting affective brain processes and cognitive control systems in both clinical and real-world environments. 

References

Hedy Kober, Jason Buhle, Jochen Weber, Kevin N Ochsner, Tor D. Wager. "Let It Be: Mindful-Acceptance Down-Regulates Pain and Negative Emotion." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (First published: January 27, 2020) DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsz104