Many people turn to meditation and mindfulness to better regulate behavior and achieve goals. But how exactly does this work?
During mindfulness training, “you’re monitoring your thoughts actively, but you’re also not holding onto them,” explains behavioral scientist Rimma Teper. “You’re not ruminating about the past, you’re not thinking about the future. You’re noticing thoughts as they come up, and you’re letting them go.” In other words, mindfulness and meditation can make us more aware and accepting of thoughts and emotions.
Awareness and acceptance play a key role in executive control, our capacity to inhibit impulses. Mindfulness gives us the tools to acknowledge distracting thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental way (“I realize that I am craving a piece of cake right now”), which makes us better equipped to resist them. So, acknowledging and accepting the pang of guilt you may feel as you’re about to take a bite can help you overcome the impulse.
“The two facets of mindfulness—awareness and acceptance—help enhance executive control,” Teper writes.“This, in turn, helps to promote effective emotion regulation.”
In an overview on mindfulness, psychologist Kirk Warren Brown wrote that mindfulness allows us to “be aware of the ongoing parade put on by the self, including one’s attempts to exert self-control.” Once we’re aware of the “parade” of wants and needs in our minds, we can be better informed and selective about our goals and desires.
Brown explains that there are two techniques for regulating our behavior: self-controlled regulation and mindful self-regulation.
When we exert self-control, there is “some impulse, some desire, some thought or emotion that comes up that we feel we need to get a handle on,” Brown explains. “It often involves either stopping it, or suppressing it, or redirecting it in some way.” So an angry person might exert self-control by suppressing emotions, or by redirecting them and punching a wall.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves “simply being with it, paying attention to it.” Brown says that over time, “we realize, ‘Hey, this thing that’s coming up? I don’t have to necessarily jump all over it to get control of it. I can simply be with it, and know that it’s going to work its way through my mind.’” Mindfulness helps us understand that thoughts are just thoughts; they do not require action.
This mindful approach to self-regulation is significantly less draining than exerting self-control. “The self in self-control, so to speak, often takes the form of willpower,” says Brown. “And that takes energy.”
On the other hand, “the self in mindful self-regulation is very different,” he says. “It doesn’t involve this ego-based willpower. That self is an expression of our deeper values, our deeper desires, our deeper needs at that moment. It’s much less self-centered, and more about meeting what the moment is asking of us.” Instead of using up energy, Brown says, mindful regulation of behavior can actually be energizing.
This is a key difference because willpower is a precious resource that depletes as we use it. Several studies have shown that when participants are asked to resist eating cookies, they subsequently give up on a challenging puzzle more quickly than those who ate the treat.
But mindfulness and meditation may actually restore depleted willpower. In a 2012 study, researchers had participants watch YouTube videos intended to elicit disgust. Some were allowed to express their natural emotions, while others were told to keep a straight face (emotion suppression depletes self-control). This was followed by five minutes of either a simple task or meditation.
Participants who had not suppressed emotions during the videos performed better on a challenging attention test used to measure self-control. Crucially, however, participants who had suppressed their emotions and then meditated performed as well as those who had not suppressed emotion. The authors concluded, “this finding suggests that a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources.”
The energizing, non-draining benefits of mindfulness can add up over time. A 2009 study of medical students found that those who participated in an integrated mindfulness and lifestyle program experienced decreased rates of depression and hostility.
And a clinical guide to endurance sports medicine encourages mindfulness training for endurance athletes, another group dependent on their own willpower. According to the guide, when athletes suppress negative thoughts, they “may paradoxically increase those thoughts.” Instead, mindfulness techniques “encourage the athlete to challenge that belief with evidence like ‘I didn’t pace the race well but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure in all things—I did succeed by managing my nutrition effectively,’” and to acknowledge negative feelings (such as insecurity or a tightness in the chest), instead of suppressing them.
It’s not much of a surprise, then, that mindful people exhibit higher levels of conscientiousness (defined as being dependable, responsible, rule-abiding, achievement-oriented, and self-disciplined), according to a 2009 analysis of personality research. According to the paper, the link is likely due to “mindful individuals’ greater ability to self-regulate.”
Teper says meditation can be excellent practice for learning to mindfully resist impulses and self-regulate: “The natural inclination of the mind is to wander. We start ruminating, we start planning what we’re going to make for dinner, or regurgitating a conversation we had with our friend on the phone two days ago.” During meditation, we practice avoiding these rabbit holes of thought, which trains us to avoid other impulses in our lives.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.
Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ