Can you imagine getting a root canal or other major dental procedure without novocaine? A scientist colleague of mine recently told me about a painful exposed nerve in his tooth. Rather than request a numbing option at the dentist, he used a “focus in” meditation technique to direct all of his attention to his mouth with as much calming equanimity as he could muster. Doing so transformed the pain for a few minutes. Each time the dentist touched the tooth, my colleague felt bubbles of joy, and this lasted until the dentist interrupted by asking, “Why are you smiling?”
A fair question at this point is why anyone would want to be fully aware of intense or painful procedures. But what may sound like a punishing choice—to directly confront hurt or distress—may in some instances be beneficial. A stream of scientific articles suggests that there are benefits in turning toward discomfort or negative emotions with acceptance. In addition, all of us can gain from finding ways to cope with stress and suffering—particularly when larger circumstances are beyond our control. As a researcher who has studied meditation for more than 20 years, I believe that the cultivation of equanimity, a central element of certain mindfulness meditation practices, can help.
(Read more about meditation research)
It’s important to first define the idea of turning toward discomfort. I’m not advocating for people to put themselves in dangerous or excruciating positions. But when we push ourselves into challenging or discomfiting situations, much like trainers who push athletes just past their comfort zone to make gains, learning often happens. Indeed, a 2022 study with more than 2,000 people demonstrated that those participants who were explicitly encouraged to push themselves into awkward, uncomfortable situations across multiple domains—including taking improv classes to boost self-confidence and reading about opposing political viewpoints—later reported the greatest degree of personal growth.
Another study, published this year, found that people who can face their negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, in a neutral way are more satisfied and less anxious and have fewer symptoms of depression than those who judge their negative feelings harshly. That study fits into a growing consensus in psychology that suggests we can learn powerful lessons about ourselves provided we can sit with our emotions and thoughts with an open, curious mind.
My own research indicates that meditation provides an ideal way to practice turning toward discomfort—particularly when it trains up one’s equanimity. Broadly, mindfulness meditation is a form of mental training that helps people focus on attending to the present moment in an open and receptive way. Equanimity specifically refers to a mental attitude of being at peace with the push and pull of experience. In my laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, we conducted several clinical trials on developing equanimity during mindfulness meditation training. This approach includes guided meditation exercises such as using a matter-of-fact voice to label uncomfortable sensations in the body or welcoming uncomfortable feelings by saying “yes” aloud each time a sensation is detected.
To gauge the effectiveness of such interventions, we recruited 153 stressed adults in the Pittsburgh, Pa., community and offered them a mindfulness meditation training program with or without training in equanimity. (For example, while the mindfulness-only group built skills to recognize ongoing experiences, the equanimity group also practiced acceptance of those experiences.) Our equanimity skills training group had significantly better outcomes on several measures. After just 14 days of training, for example, the participants who learned equanimity skills had significantly lower biological stress responses when asked to deliver a difficult speech and solve math problems in front of experts in white lab coats. The equanimity skills group also had significantly lower blood pressure and hormonal stress levels.
In the days after training, people introduced to equanimity exercises also reported significantly higher positive emotions and well-being throughout the day and more meaningful social interactions than participants who received mindfulness training without the equanimity component. It was as though developing an attitude of equanimity had transformed their emotional reactivity to stress, helping them better appreciate and savor daily life’s many little positive experiences and making them more curious and open to connecting with others.
We are expanding on this work in several ways—including through the development of an app that offers equanimity training on demand and with trials involving participants with stress-related gastrointestinal disorders. Meanwhile other scientists are further exploring equanimity’s power. In 2022, for instance, researchers based in Australia published a study examining isolation and psychological distress in 578 people during the COVID pandemic. They found that the degree to which people felt alone during this period predicted their depression, anxiety and stress—but that this dynamic could be mediated by equanimity. That is, people who reported higher levels of equanimity (based on a scale in which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I experience a sense of mental balance regardless of what is happening in my life”) reported less psychological distress, even though they were feeling isolated. In other words, equanimity can be protective so that feeling socially disconnected doesn’t necessarily lead to mental distress.
Equanimity is therefore useful not only when responding to growing pains or learning to sit with negative thoughts—it can help us weather the inevitable periods of suffering that we all face at some point in our life. Right now people are hurting for many reasons and looking for ways to cope. Our social lives are suffering, too, which prompted the U.S. surgeon general this past spring to declare a national advisory about our surging epidemic of loneliness.
Without question, there are many important steps we need to take collectively to respond to these challenges—including taking aim at structures and choices in our society that contribute to these problems. But we can each build our resilience on a personal level as well by cultivating greater acceptance of our experience—good or bad, painful or pleasant—in the present moment.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at [email protected].
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.