Meditation and Emotional Expression: A Match Made in Mindfulness
By Sydney Web
‘The only way out is through’—a quote expressed across the ages from Robert Frost to Alanis Morrissette. The concept is fairly straightforward: every struggle must be confronted and triumphed rather than pushed away. In Shakespeare’s more poetic words, “give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak; whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” Sadly, our Western culture teaches us quite the opposite notion, that our emotional pain must be subdued as quickly as it arrives. We tell children to stop crying, we dismiss past trauma, or we quickly change the subject when someone says they’re having a hard time. We suppress, ignore, or attempt to overwrite pain with half-hearted positive affirmations. Much like trying to hold a beach ball underwater, we expend so much precious energy just to keep our pain below the surface of our lives. These societal behaviors negate the hallmarks of mental health, recovery from emotional challenges and an increased tolerance to negative emotions.
Thankfully, mindfulness offers us an opposing perspective to the Western belief that emotional distress is problematic. Mindfulness allows for moment-to-moment awareness without judgement of thoughts, memories, and feelings that arise. Much of what we call mindfulness includes meditation—full acceptance and awareness in the present moment. Meditation comes in many varieties (loving-kindness, grounding, body scan, etc.), yet each embody the underlying notion of nonjudgment and openness.
Mindfulness and meditation practices have just recently been scientifically explored for mental health benefits, and studies have shown mindfulness interventions very effective in their ability to decrease fear of negative emotions and increase willingness to experience such emotions. One fascinating study looked at how mindfulness training (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction including various forms of meditation) affected neural responses to sad and depressing TV and movie clips. Researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) to see how those who meditated for 8 weeks reacted to the sad clips as compared to those that did not meditate. Those that meditated and were subjected to the mindfulness training had significantly less depression, anxiety, and bodily distress after shown the sad clips than those that did not receive the mindfulness training1. Not only that, but those with mindfulness training showed a reduction of brain activation related to sadness in the Broca’s area, left ventromedial prefrontal cortex, right temporal junction, and right cerebellum (see figure below). Meditation actually altered neural activation and made people better able to response to negative emotions!
This figure represents the differences in neural activation after shown sad clips between those who received mindfulness training and those that did not.
With research supporting the idea that meditation can help aid us in honest and healthy emotional expression, I ask, what’s the hold up? We know it’s good for us, we know we need to swim upstream the cultural and societal river, and we must start taking care of ourselves emotionally. I challenge you to express yourself, not suppress. I challenge you to embark on the mindfulness journey or pick up where you left off. I promise, you’re worth the effort.
 Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness; Farb et al., 2010
 Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Emotional Experience and Expression: A Randomized Controlled Trial; Robin, Keng, Ekbald, & Brantley, 2012
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