Mindfulness has been linked to better emotion regulation and more adaptive responses to stress across a number of studies, but the mechanisms underlying these links remain to be fully understood. The present study examines links between trait mindfulness (Five Facets of Mindfulness Questionnaire; FFMQ) and participants’ responses to common emotional challenges, focusing specifically on the roles of reduced avoidance and more self-distanced engagement as key potential mechanisms driving the adaptive benefits of trait mindfulness.
Adults (n = 305, age range: 40–72) from the Second Generation Study of the Harvard Study of Adult Development completed two laboratory-based challenges—public speaking combined with difficult math tasks (the Trier Social Stress Test) and writing about a memory of a difficult moment. State anxiety and sadness were assessed immediately before and after the two stressors. To capture different ways of engaging, measures of self-distancing, avoidance, and persistent worry were collected during the lab session.
As predicted, individuals who scored higher on the FFMQ experienced less anxiety and persistent worry in response to the social stressors. The FFMQ was also linked to less anxiety and sadness when writing about a difficult moment. The links between mindfulness and negative emotions after the writing task were independently mediated by self-distanced engagement and lower avoidance.
Affective benefits of trait mindfulness under stress are associated with both the degree and the nature of emotional engagement. Specifically, reduced avoidance and self-distanced engagement may facilitate reflection on negative experiences that is less affectively aversive.