Mindfulness linked to acceptance and self-compassion in response to stressful experiences

A study recently published in the journal Emotion provides new insight into the relationship between mindfulness and coping with stress. The findings indicate that accepting stressful experiences is associated with one’s propensity to experience positive emotions.

“We were interested in learning more about why mindfulness might be a helpful resource for stress management — especially for first-semester university students undergoing the stressful transition to college life,” said study author Lucy Finkelstein-Fox, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut and member of the Meaning, Spirituality, and Health Lab.

“Earlier studies have shown that individuals with high levels of mindfulness demonstrate acceptance, self-compassion, distress tolerance, and flexibility, but we still know very little about how these mindful qualities actually build positive and negative affect in the context of stressful situations.”

In the study, 157 first-year undergraduate students at the University of Connecticut completed assessments of mindfulness, stress, emotional states, and use of coping strategies at the beginning of their first semester. The participants then completed shorter daily surveys for one week during the second month of the semester.

The researchers found that more mindful students — meaning those who agreed with statements such as “It is easy for me to concentrate on what I am doing” and “I am able to accept the thoughts and feelings I have” — tended to report lower levels of stress, which in turn was linked to experiencing fewer negative emotional states.

Mindfulness appeared to predispose students to increase the use of passive forms of coping in situations perceived to be less controllable, while increasing active forms of coping in situations seen as more controllable.

“Mindfulness seems to be helpful for perceiving daily events as less stressful and coping with stress in a more engaged, adaptive way. In particular, mindful coping appears to complement active, problem-focused ways of dealing with stress; one is rarely a substitute for the other,” Finkelstein-Fox told PsyPost.

“These patterns of daily stress and coping may help mindful individuals to experience greater positive and less negative affect than their less mindful peers.”

The researchers also identified some pathways through which mindfulness may be associated with improved affect. In particular, mindful students were more likely to cope with stressful events by accepting the reality of the fact that it happened and were less likely to criticize themselves for experiencing the stressful event.

“Another important finding of this study is that mindfulness relates to positive and negative affect in distinct ways; for example, mindful acceptance may be especially beneficial for building positive affect, whereas self-compassion (or low self-blame) may be most helpful for reducing negative affect,” Finkelstein-Fox added.

“It’s likely that mindfulness influences ways of thinking and feeling through multiple unique pathways, and may be particularly useful for people who struggle with high levels of daily stress.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“It’s important to note that daily stress, coping, and affect were all assessed at the same time, so we can’t draw conclusions about causality based on these data. Since our participants were all college students, another key next step will be for researchers to recruit diverse clinical samples who experience a wide variety of stressful events and may benefit from mindfulness in different ways,” Finkelstein-Fox said.

The study, “Mindfulness’ Effects on Stress, Coping, and Mood: A Daily Diary Goodness-of-Fit Study“, was authored by Lucy Finkelstein-Fox, Crystal L. Park, and Kristen E. Riley.